Civil Liberties

Friday A/V Club: NBC's Infamous Insta-Movie About Waco

A TV film that was so misleading, the screenwriter asked the surviving Davidians for forgiveness


Starring Tim Daly as David Koresh. No, really.

The events now unfolding at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge have been compared and contrasted many times with the 1993 siege in Waco. Here is one significant difference: It's not nearly as hard to find different perspectives on the Oregon conflict. From the most high-minded political essays to the dumbest Facebook memes, the debate over the Oregon occupation has been open to a wide range of ideas about the case that set off the conflict, the goals of the people involved, and how the government ought to react. Six days into this saga, I've seen a lot of bloodthirsty garbage, but I've seen a lot of pushback against that too.

After a week of the Waco story, by contrast, the mass media were virtually unanimous in presenting the Branch Davidians as a dangerous cult that needed to be contained. Over the course of the stand-off and right afterward, rival narratives would begin to emerge, initially in the alternative media and eventually in mainstream venues. But you'd have to wait til well after the lethal fire that ended the siege before the critical voices were more than a small minority.

What did people see instead? Stuff like Ambush in Waco, a 1993 TV movie that was written before the stand-off had even ended and was broadcast a month after the fire. In 2001, screenwriter Phil Penningroth published a long and moving mea culpa for the film on the website Killing the Buddha. He describes how he had to write the script in a rush at a time when the only available sources were heavily biased against the Davidians, how despite that he nonetheless started to feel doubts about the story he was shaping, and how those doubts blossomed as new information emerged after the program aired. "Watching the movie," he writes,

I felt a strange mixture of pride and chagrin. By then I believed that what had been presented to the world as the destructive work of one crazed man and a bunch of zombies was really the collision of cultural forces. In our lust for money and fame, I believed that we had missed the opportunity to tell that larger, more important story. Sadly, in the end, I'd accomplished what I'd set out to do—written a movie that was both fast and good. But what did "good" mean? I had used my talent to create a drama so effective it convinced millions of people that the lies they saw on the screen were true.

From then on, almost every week brought new revelations about the Davidians' relative innocence and the government's deceptions. My remorse grew as I realized how much I had contributed to the simplified, wholly negative image of Koresh and his followers….I followed the congressional hearings that revealed much of the BATF's perfidy and cover-up. I felt foolish [at how] completely I had been misled and ashamed at how I had misled others in Ambush in Waco.

Penningroth tried to sell a follow-up movie that would tell a more accurate account, and when that went nowhere he decided to write a play instead. His research for the play led to still more remorse, and eventually to moments like this:

The more I came to know the Davidians as living, breathing human beings—even those who were dead, through the magic of tape—the more I realized how much damage I had done with the characterizations in the movie. This was brought home to me during a luncheon hosted by Clive Doyle and the surviving Davidians, a small number of old people, mostly women, and some mothers with young children who had left Mt. Carmel before the fire….[S]itting there, I realized that there was something I needed even more than their cooperation—forgiveness.

After telling them who I was and why I was there, that's what I asked for. Graciously, they gave it—but gracious didn't mean easy. One Hispanic woman at the end of the table spoke up. Her family had seen Ambush in Waco and, taking it as truth, blamed her for introducing several relatives to Koresh's "cult," an involvement that had led to their deaths in the fire. Ever since the movie aired, her family had shunned her. "I do forgive you," she told me. "But I want you to know that your movie destroyed my life."

Here is the film:

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)