Waco: American Apocalypse review – gunfights, dying FBI agents … and zero analysis

If it’s Tuesday, as the saying almost goes, it must be another Netflix true crime documentary. And if it’s a Tuesday coming up to the 30th anniversary of the most infamous massacre on US soil in modern times, it must be the three-part series Waco: American Apocalypse.

Much of it plays like an edited highlights reel. The 51-day siege between the FBI and the Branch Davidian religious sect, led by self-proclaimed messiah David Koresh at the Mount Carmel compound just outside Waco in 1993, was recorded by the local news crew from the moment law enforcement started to gather to the moment the last embers cooled after the final conflagration nearly two months later. Texas-raised director Tiller Russell had masses of contemporary footage to choose from so we get to relive all the “best” bits. The opening gunfight, dead and dying agents filmed on rooftops, the injured being loaded on to the bonnets of vehicles and driven urgently away with their comrades holding on to them, voice recordings of the wounded asking to be rescued, the self-made videos of Koresh after being wounded himself and showing the bullet holes in his side to the waiting world. Tweny-four-hour cable news was then in its infancy and this was its baptism of fire. Perhaps the irony would have appealed to Koresh.

The first episode concentrates almost entirely on the first raid, virtually recreating it in real time. What it doesn’t do here or in the succeeding episodes is contextualise or dig deeper into events. Bill Buford, then a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (the ATF), remains adamant that they should not have gone ahead with the raid as planned that morning once they knew those inside had been tipped off. The wisdom (or otherwise) of this is only the first of many of the core controversies of the Waco story that make it still worth re-examining, but Waco: American Apocalypse is content to mention it and instantly move on. Nor does it delve into the vexed question of who fired first. Both sides continue to deny that it was them.

It’s a repeating pattern over the three hours. The story of Koresh and his takeover of the Branch Davidians – who have come to be thought of as “his cult” but were established in 1955 (or 1935 depending on whether you go by nomenclature or the teachings they follow) and were getting on quite well and certainly less violently for decades before Koresh came along – is covered in just a few minutes of the second episode. The rest deals with the discussions between the FBI and the Branch Davidians who were still inside the building after the botched initial raid. It looks at the increasingly diverging strategies preferred by the negotiators (softly, softly, as they persuade the members to send out the children two by two in return for letting Koresh broadcast his messages on local radio, and later television) and the FBI proper (take them down, all guns blazing). The competing strategies are noted but there is no evaluation that might help the viewer weigh up the two.

Similarly, as flames consume the compound in the final episode (Koresh and 75 others, including 25 children, died in the fire that ended the siege), there is no interrogation of what could or should have been done differently. And there is no broader discussion of what Waco meant or has come to mean in the continuing debates about religious freedom (or what happens to the psychology of law enforcement officers when you label something a cult led by a madman), gun rights and federal government boundaries. It mentions that Timothy McVeigh was among the spectators at Waco and was considered to be radicalised by it, but the effect was surely not limited to one man. A braver documentary might have wanted to investigate a route from Mount Carmel 1993 to Capitol Hill 2021 but this one is happy to settle for spectacle and survivors’ stories over substance.

Which is not to say the survivors’ stories aren’t moving (especially when they do not shade into the manipulative, as when one is invited to hear her father’s last call to her nine-year-old self from inside the compound, where he was soon to die) and a fascinating testimony to how strong the religious hold is over them. One woman in particular still seems more upset by her failure to serve her God to the last than the deaths, suffering and accusations that Koresh abused children. Thirty years on, she sounds as if she is still waiting for her personal messiah’s second coming.

• Waco: American Apocalypse is available on Netflix.