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‘Waco’ offers a stark look back at the standoff and its aftermath

<i>Netflix</i><br/>David Koresh
Courtesy of Netflix
David Koresh

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

Every tragedy now seems to warrant made-for-TV anniversary coverage, and so it is with “Waco: American Apocalypse,” a three-part Netflix docuseries detailing the 51-day standoff between federal law enforcement and cult leader David Koresh. What sets this project apart is its spare presentation and extraordinary access to unseen video, including grainy footage shot within the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit.

Talking to an array of those involved in the siege on both sides of the walls of Koresh’s Texas compound, director Tiller Russell admirably provides context to what transpired. That includes the buildup to and immediate aftermath of those events, as well as the lingering influence of “Waco” as a rallying cry for extremists, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh among them.

In one of the more chilling moments, an FBI sniper recalls briefly having Koresh in his gun sights, knowing that taking him out would end the situation, but that firing the shot would have meant going to jail. With the benefit of hindsight, he sounds even more conflicted now than he claims to have felt at the time.

Authorities also speak candidly regarding dysfunction between those negotiating with Koresh and other law-enforcement members who had lost colleagues in the initial exchange of gunfire when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sought to serve a weapons warrant to the Branch-Davidian sect, triggering a battle that claimed the lives of four agents.

“It was a massive, massive amount of gunfire,” Jim Cavanaugh, then an ATF special agent, recalls of the initial firefight, one of several people who tears up in recounting what happened.

The internal footage of Koresh is creepy and compelling, a messianic figure who took multiple wives and allegedly sexually abused children. “Waco” spares some time to detail the atmosphere within the cult, as well as the unlikely path he took in rising to become its leader. (Showtime, incidentally, will air a sequel to its miniseries about the siege detailing the fallout and trials of those involved, again featuring Michael Shannon and John Leguizamo, in April.)

The media were also a major part of how Waco unfolded, and the impact on those who covered it was equally profound. Dallas Morning News reporter Lee Hancock recalls stopping her car and vomiting when she heard about Oklahoma City on the Waco anniversary in 1995, recognizing the “direct line” between those events. “I hate that day, for many reasons,” she says.

Perhaps foremost, Russell’s stark storytelling lets the video and participants speak for themselves, in contrast to much of the florid brand of true crime that has found a home on Netflix. That economical approach strips away the finger-pointing that followed the tragic loss of life at Waco and zero in on the roots of what went wrong, and to what extent it might have been avoidable.

The answers aren’t always clear or what one might expect, but as such documentaries go, the effect is a frequently riveting view of an “American Apocalypse,” then and now.

“Waco: American Apocalypse” premieres March 22 on Netflix.

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