Directed by: John Erick Dowdie, Dennie Gordon
Distributed by: Paramount Network
Written by Jeff Sparks
Based on the memoirs of FBI Negotiator Gary Noesner and survivor David Thibodeau, “Waco” tells the true story of the Branch Davidians religious sect. Led by their charismatic leader, David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch), the group’s compound is assaulted by the ATF in search of illegal weapons in the spring of 1993. During the ensuing siege, the commune struggles to maintain their faith as they fear for their lives while their leader stalls for time. On the outside, Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon) attempts to stop the FBI from assaulting the building and losing more lives. The mini-series stars Taylor Kitsch, Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks, Shea Whigham, Andrea Riseborough, Glenn Fleshler, Rory Culkin, Julia Garner, and John Leguizamo. Each brilliant, each playing a character based on a real person. The writing and the acting shows you who these people are. Gary Noesner is a man trying to save lives after Beruea’s failure to do so in the past. Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks) is a friend to everyone in the commune always focusing on their health and safety. Judy (Andrea Riseborough) is a woman trying to understand her place in the world as violence and fear consume those around her. I could go on and on. The most important thing about “Waco” is the way it portrays the people involved. Mainstream media and popular opinion often depict the Branch Davidians as a bunch of crazies. This series serves as a reminder that no matter your stance on the group’s actions or beliefs, these were not just crazy cult members, they were real people who lost their lives.
The first two episodes focus on building up the members of the commune and their day-to-day life. Here, the series shows us who these people are. They’re mothers, sisters, brothers, friends, and everything in between. They play music together, do chores, study their religion, and try to help those in need. Hidden in their cellar though, is a stash of weapons that their leader says they’ll need for looming trouble that he supposedly foresees. The narcissistic Koresh is played marvelously by Taylor Kitsch. Rarely does an actor disappear into a role as he does here. Besides losing weight and changing his hair, Kitsch transforms his voice and mimics Koresh’s mannerisms to deliver an outstanding performance. Paul Sparks also did extensive research on his character, mimicking his voice perfectly. The community that they built is also an important aspect of the show. Frequent wide shots display the atmosphere of their home, Mount Carmel. We see where they eat, wash clothes, sleep, and much more. By viewing the inside of the building in-depth, we are able to witness that besides being a cult compound, this was also a home.
When the shooting starts in episode 3, it’s disturbing to see this community we’ve grown to know for the past two episodes involved in a bloodbath that shows lives lost on both sides. The next few episodes manage to show the intricacies of the lives of the Davidians and the FBI throughout the 51-day siege. The great Michael Shannon shines as the negotiator who speaks with the group’s leader on the phone for six weeks as he attempts to coax them into surrender before it’s too late. The underrated Paul Sparks also impresses as Koresh’s right-hand man. The concern for those around him contrasts with the selfishness of Koresh and allows the viewer to connect with the group on a deeper level. The same can be said for Riseborough’s character who is wounded in the initial assault trying to protect her child from the incoming gunfire. Culkin and Garner’s characters bring a strong level of relatability as two teen lovebirds who ponder what life after the siege will look like.
The development of these characters eventually culminates on the 51st day of the siege, in which the FBI injects tear gas into the building that ignites several fires, killing 76 people. Like the initial shootout, these scenes are very difficult to watch. Horrifying images of mothers and their children suffocating leave a lasting feeling of hopelessness long after the episode ends, but maybe that’s the point that directors Dowdie and Gordon are going for. No matter your stance on the Davidians, “Waco” reminds us that the events that took place on day 51 were a tragedy and should be remembered as such.
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