The fuzzy line that often separates truth from fiction gets pureed in “In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco,” the first docudrama based on the Feb. 28 shootout between federal agents and Branch Davidians at their Mount Carmel compound.
That should come as no surprise when one realizes that the go-ahead for the NBC project came the day after the raid, with broadcast scheduled for the May ratings sweeps a scant two months away.
The fact that the two-hour “Ambush in Waco” is coherent — basically — represents an accomplishment of sorts. No awards for acting or Dick Lowry’s direction here, but both are passable.
The disturbing part, particularly to those who followed the two-month tale and its multitude of conflicting viewpoints, incomplete truths and outright contradictions, is that many viewers will accept “Ambush” as the complete story.
Told primarily from the point of view of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents and ex-cult members, “Ambush in Waco” creates a plausible version of events leading up to the Feb. 28 gun battle that killed four ATF agents.
Plausible, but not necessarily accurate.
Characters are apparently invented, names changed, geography blurred and time frames compressed in order to cover the subject in a two-hour docudrama. It makes for drama, but don’t consider this a documentary.
The plot proceeds on twin fronts. One follows Vernon Howell (Tim Daly, of “Wings”) and his growing control over his Branch Davidian followers at their Mount Carmel complex (which resembles the original, albeit with stucco walls and mountains in the background).
The second tracks a New Orleans team of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, led by agent Bob Blanchard (Dan Luria, best known as the father of “The Wonder Years”) as they follow the rumors trickling from Mount Carmel and attempt to build a case against Howell.
Both plotlines intersect in the furious gun battle between Howell’s followers and the federal agents, which ends “Ambush in Waco.”
While Howell is referred to as Howell and David Koresh throughout “Ambush in Waco,” the names of other players get changed. There’s Adrian (William O’Leary), whose character is modeled on Branch Davidian Marc Breault, who split with Howell and left the group; Rebecca (Jeri Lynn Ryan), based on Rachel Jones Howell Koresh, Howell’s legal wife; Howell’s lieutenants Glen and Meg (Gordon Clapp and Susan Thompson), true believers like Steve and Judy Schneider; and “Sheriff Russ,” sheriff of McLennan County (Clu Gulager, ironically a Baylor graduate and former Waco resident).
Much of “Ambush” focuses on Howell, whom Daly eerily resembles, and not on the agents killed “in the line of duty,” the series’ title.
Daly’s performance captures a sense of how a person like Howell could brainwash his followers: an impressive ability to quote Scripture, personal attention given individuals, continual tests of members’ loyalty and public humiliation for those who stray.
Some scenes are chilling in the light of the siege’s blazing end, particularly where a young girl from the compound tells Blanchard, “He taught us the right way to shoot ourselves. Like this —“ (imitating a gun in the mouth). “That way we won’t miss or get captured or end up vegetables.”
Or the gun battle sequences, which captures the considerable firepower that met the raiding ATF.
The Branch Davidians who follow Howell, however, largely look like generic religious cultists left over from an old Charles Manson TV movie: young, white, well-scrubbed, naïve — an adult Brady Bunch gone horribly astray.
There’s little sense of the international composition of Howell’s group nor of its wide range of ages. There’s no mention of the former Seventh-day Adventist roots of some — if the denomination was mentioned in the TV movie, I missed it — nor of the many years that some had been Branch Davidians.
Although the move focuses on agents from the ATF’s New Orleans office, there’s little explanation why they take the lead in the investigation from nearby Houston, Dallas and San Antonio offices or how long the investigation actually took.
At least one set of characters, Jason (Neal McDonough) seem created for dramatic purposes: Jason is the novice to whom Laura explains Howell and the Mount Carmel operation, primarily for viewers’ benefit.
Creating a character for dramatic purposes is one thing, but dramatizing unsubstantiated allegations is another and “Ambush” includes some questionable, controversial ones.
In one scene, a state employee investigating child abuse charges tells Blanchard she’d rather not keep in touch with the feds through the sheriff’s office because a member of that office “has a niece” who was a Branch Davidian and possibly was keeping him informed. Truth or rumor? Who knows?
“Ambush” implies that the unnamed local newspaper’s investigate series forced the ATF to move up its planned raid, an allegation yet unproven. The movie also features a scene in which an anonymous television cameraman near the compound on the morning of the raid baldly tells a postman, himself a cult member, “We’ve learned the ATF is going to raid Mount Carmel. I wouldn’t go up if I were you.”
Again, an unproven allegation.
Some off-base details merely are funny. Waco viewers likely will smirk at scenes that show a mountain ridge behind Mount Carmel or the one-room shop where Howell could buy firearms and electric guitars. Waco, Texas: one-stop shopping at its finest.
Probably to the relief of city officials, “Ambush in Waco” rarely touches on neighboring Waco. The only non-official locals who show up are an unnamed gun dealer and a Mount Carmel neighbor who tells the county sheriff in a country drawl, “They’ve been good neighbors and all. Little weird, perhaps, but those sound like automatic guns — and they don’t seem right.”
No, they don’t.