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Waco: The Rules of Engagement

New Yorker Video // Unrated // December 9, 2003
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted December 24, 2003 | E-mail the Author
The Movie

"The Shocking Truth Revealed!"

In 1993, I was just starting high school, and wasn't concerned much with current events (outside of video game commercials). One event that I remember the most occurred earlier that year, in April to be exact. The Branch Dividians, a "religious cult", were involved in a stand-off with ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) agents, and supposedly committed a mass suicide by torching their own building. Along with the majority of Americans, I shrugged it off.

Luckily, some people didn't.

In 1997, director William Gazecki made a stunning debut with his now-infamous documentary, Waco: The Rules of Engagement. Nominated for an Academy Award (and winner of both an Emmy and the IDA Feature Award), this scathing look into the other side of the story opened a lot of eyes. Maybe they didn't commit suicide after all. Maybe they were the victims of excessive force and an oppressive government who was scared of their religious beliefs. As it turns out, there's a lot of evidence to back up this story, as this 136-minute documentary goes into great detail about every aspect of overlooked evidence, outright lies, and the occasional fabrication.

Most of the footage used here was shot during the actual events...the standoff, the invasion, and the eventual fire. Also included are scenes from Senate hearings and other political meetings, along with actual interviews with the few survivors of the incident. To the credit of Waco: The Rules of Engagement, it walks the line of objectivity very well. While it occasionally may come off as a little biased towards the Branch Dividians, both sides get a good amount of time in the spotlight.

The footage you see in this documentary is stunning evidence, and should most certainly be enough to think of the Waco incident as anything but a "closed case". No matter if you side with the government or the Dividians, there's some pressing evidence that will show you that we haven't seen the whole story. They're certainly not without fault, but it's hard not to feel a measure of sympathy for the Dividians; from the evidence, it's pretty obvious that the ATF used excessive force during the raid, and should have been severely reprimanded for their actions.

This landmark 1997 documentary is now available on DVD from New Yorker Video, and the disc itself is a perfect compliment to the film...raw and informative. You should really check this one out for yourself, and see if the evidence is enough to make you think twice about the media's influence on our culture. If not for this documentary, I may have never thought twice about what happened in 1993, but thankfully some people had the guts to get a picture of what could have happened.

Quality Control Department

Don't let the low rating for the video fool you...there's not much that could have helped this release. Comprised mostly of surveillance footage, news broadcasts, and senate hearings, Waco: The Rules of Engagement is not meant to be a technical tour-de-force. Presented in 1.33:1 full screen (an obvious choice, due to the source material), the image looks mildly soft at best, and pretty darn bad at worst. One thing that bothered me was a quote from the FLIR expert, who mentioned that the tape used for this film is much lower quality that the one used during the trial. It's a shame that the better quality tape couldn't be obtained for the film, because some of the details are hard to make out. However, the lackluster state of the source material is to blame, so this is as good as it's likely to get. Besides, the subject matter wouldn't really lend itself to an overly polished presentation anyway.

The audio fares better, but the source material still isn't in the greatest condition. Presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, everything comes through with reasonable clarity (although the obligatory subtitles appear during emergency phone calls and similar scenes). It's a perfectly fine audio presentation, and you're not likely to find better audio for this type of documentary.

Menu design and presentation:
The presentation was standard for most lower-profile releases...a little on the bland side, but good enough to do the job. One eye-catching aspect of the packaging was the numerous quotes and pictures used on the front and back of the case, as well as the list of awards/nominations received. The look of the packaging and menus sometimes strayed into the "Weekly World News" variety, but that's probably a difficult stereotype to overcome. Thankfully, it didn't go for an overly-dramatic or tacky presentation, so the experience was perfectly acceptable. Also included is a four-page insert with the chapter selection and list of extras. Speaking of which...

The extras here are a benefit to the main feature. First off, there's some Additional FLIR Footage (about 25 minutes) that goes into greater detail about the overhead shots taken during the events. While this isn't the most polished of presentations (the host loses focus at certain points and seems a little disorganized), it's really fascinating stuff. Also included is the harrowing Extended 911 Call (also about 25 minutes), which is pretty tough to sit through since we all know the outcome. Next is a series of Character Updates, which give a brief account of what the survivors are up to these days...this was an especially thoughtful inclusion. Also here are True Stories Promo Clips (essentially, a series of TV spots) and the film's Trailer. Not a bad set of extras for this terrific documentary.

Should anything else have been included?

Well, the extras included were excellent, and really added to the main feature. The only addition that might have helped would have been a timeline of the major events as they unfolded...although the information is presented in a generally straightforward manner, it might have helped to put everything in plain perspective. Also, subtitles would have helped...they are present during some of the main feature (the aforementioned 911 phone calls), so why not go the whole way?

Final Thoughts

Waco: The Rules of Engagement is a very well-done documentary that deserves to be seen. The DVD itself is also a good effort...while not flashy or overdone, it sets out to do exactly what it was supposed to, and that's the best we can hope for. As for these unfortunate events themselves, who can really know the truth of what happened during those days back in 1993? Both sides may have withheld many more details, but we're not getting the whole picture by reading newspapers and watching CNN. Waco: The Rules of Engagement is Recommended for anyone who's willing to look a little harder for the truth, no matter which side you agree with.

Randy Miller III is a part-time cartooning instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.
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