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‘Waco’ review: Siege drama painted in broad strokes

Taylor Kitsch preaches as Branch Davidian leader David

Taylor Kitsch preaches as Branch Davidian leader David Koresh in "Waco." Photo Credit: Paramount Network

THE LIMITED SERIES “Waco”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on Paramount Network (formerly Spike TV)

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Branch Davidian leader David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) is inside a compound outside Waco, Texas, with wife Rachel (Melissa Benoist), right-hand man Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks), his wife Judy (Andrea Riseborough) and Davidian member David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin). An armada of trucks filled with ATF agents pulls up to serve arrest and search warrants. Then, something goes terribly wrong. The FBI takes over the siege with Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon) attempting to talk Koresh into leaving. This six-part limited series, “Waco,” covers the weekslong siege of the compound beginning Feb. 28, 1993, and ending 51 days later, when 80 Branch Davidians perished, most in a blaze that consumed the compound.

MY SAY Nearly 25 years later, Waco remains an inkblot test of the political divide. Mention Waco to some, and they may distantly recall a terrible tragedy. Mention Waco to others and they may see an enduring symbol of government overreach intent on “citizen disarmament.” For many, Waco lives on in infamy. Others scarcely remember.

Why would a new network — the former Spike, no less — want to step in the middle of all this? Obviously to attract viewers, and which viewers should be obvious too. As TV entertainment, this limited series is boilerplate. As agitprop, it’s transparent. The early episodes are sympathetic to Koresh and his followers. If not quite heroic, Kitsch’s portrayal of the Branch Davidian leader is pointedly humane. He rebukes followers who were chatting after the siege, telling them to mourn for the fallen instead. He’s no wild-eyed Jim Jones but a reasonable man of faith: “We all have something broken in us,” he tells Thibodeau, “and whether you believe it or not, Scripture is the only way to fix it.”

With bullets flying, one Davidian asks, “I feel like we gotta call 911, but who do you call when it’s your government attacking?”

By contrast, the early episodes are unsympathetic to the government. Giving the go-ahead to raid the compound, an ATF agent riding a desk in Washington says, “If we come out of that compound with loaded guns and innocent kids, it might remind Congress why they need us.”

“Waco” immediately takes sides on the question of who fired first, too: The ATF did, killing a dog. The government had long maintained that the Davidians had stocked the compound with a huge arsenal, including a 50 mm canon. But in this siege, a pair of outgunned Davidians with automatic rifles return almost all of the fire.

Not all bureaucrats in “Waco” are bad bureaucrats. Shannon’s FBI negotiator, for example, is established as a good guy in an impossible situation, made worse by a federal government where “the balance of power is shifting. We’re militarizing, changing into something I didn’t sign up for.”

“Waco” won’t be the first drama to reduce a tragedy to its simplest components, but this doesn’t offer much confidence that these are the right components or the only ones. This is Waco in black and white, absent any shades of gray — an inkblot test with just one interpretation.

BOTTOM LINE Based on the early episodes, this appears sympathetic to Koresh, unsympathetic to the government — all broad strokes, no subtleties.

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