Author: James Hibberd and Rupert Wainwright
Genre: Docudrama
Storyline: 5
Dialogue: 6
Characterization: 4
Writer’s Potential: 5

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During the infamous 51-day standoff at David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound, an FBI negotiator attempts to reason with Koresh’s right-hand man.


As the FBI prepares to storm David Koresh’s compound, known locally as “Mt. Carmel,” lead negotiator BYRON SAGE (40s, idealistic) makes an urgent call to STEVE SCHNEIDER (35, generally meek), Koresh’s right-hand man. Byron warns Steve that they’re out of time. He needs to see Koresh’s manuscript. Steve gripes that he’s the editor of it and hasn’t even seen a page. He demands to know what the FBI has planned. The story cuts back in time to President Clinton’s inauguration. A month after the inauguration, ATF agents have set up on Mt. Carmel, surveilling. In front of the 130 Branch Davidians who live on the compound, KORESH gives a calm, conversational speech about the coming Apocalypse. The group is very enthusiastic. Later, ROBERT GONZALEZ (20s) watches Steve lead several others to unload huge crates filled with AK-47s, pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Having enough for a warrant, the ATF plans their raid. In the office of WAYNE MARTIN, a Harvard Law graduate with a framed parchment copy of the U.S. Constitution, Steve frets about an article in the Waco paper describing some of the more unseemly aspects of the church, but Koresh doesn’t seem worried. Steve’s wife, JUDY, gets in bed with Koresh.

As the ATF prepares for the raid on the morning of February 28, 1993, they bring in members of the local press and ensure three ATF cameras will videotape everything that occurs. Steve, Koresh, and several others sit down with Robert Gonzalez. They tell him they know he’s an informant. Koresh tells Robert to go back to his people and tell them they’re only there to follow God. Terrified, Robert rushes to the raid staging area to warn his superiors. They debate whether or not to proceed now that Koresh has been tipped off. Ultimately, they decide to go ahead with it. Koresh knows something’s in the air. His men arm with AK-47s and body armor. ATF agents burst in, guns raised. They’re greeted by a group of malamutes, who rush the agents. The agents shoot the dogs, which prompts the Davidians to start shooting. Steve is terrified as people start dying around him. Women and children cower. The lead agent, CHOJNACKI, has no idea what’s going on inside. He orders them to fall back. ATF agents are killed. Judy is shot in the hand. The Branch Davidians manage to down a Black Hawk helicopter. Byron Sage is quickly called in to help.

Steve gets on the phone with the county sheriff, desperate to know what’s happening. Koresh grabs the phone and gets belligerent, noting that people are dead on both sides because the ATF unlawfully raided the compound. Steve finally gets back on the phone. The sheriff patches Steve through to an agent, who says they’ll cease fire as soon as the Davidians cease. Steve shouts a cease fire, which moves up and down the house until everyone stops. One injured, dying Davidian decides he can no longer take the pain and shoots himself in the head, ending the cease fire for a few more minutes. Koresh is shot in the gut. The Davidians’ sniper takes out another agent. All told, four ATF agents are dead. Byron arrives on the scene and gets on the P.A., asking if anyone in the compound needs medical attention. Somebody shouts back that they don’t need help from “his” government. In Washington, the FBI makes motions to take over at Mt. Carmel, now that dead government agents are involved. White House counsel VINCE FOSTER tells them to end it quickly, with no further loss of life. The FBI sends their Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), led by DICK ROGERS (the man responsible for botching Ruby Ridge the previous year), under the authority of JEFF JAMAR.

Jamar orders that they get a phone line into the compound, so they can find out Koresh’s demands. Byron meets with PETE SMERICK (50s), a psychologist in charge of profiling Koresh. While Pete listens in, Byron talks to a pained Koresh, who’s sarcastic and paranoid about the government’s intentions. Byron asks what Koresh wants; he says, “To be left alone.” Byron presents a case history of Koresh: born Vernon Wayne Howell to a 14-year-old girl and a father who quickly abandoned him, sexually abused by his stepfather, started memorizing the bible as a kid, had an affair with the elderly Davidian leader, assumed leadership when she died, declared compound women can only have sex with him while all the men remain celibate, has 13 children, believes that God speaks to him and has told him that Judgment Day is coming. On Day 2 of the standoff, Rogers calls in tanks. Byron begins talks with Steve, who immediately wants to know the purpose for the tanks. He says they’re scaring the children, so Byron tells Steve to let the children out. Steve asks Koresh, who says he can let out six, as long as they aren’t his. Byron asks to talk to Koresh, but Steve says he can’t come to the phone. Internally, the agents speculate he’s been shot. Byron tells Steve to relay to Koresh that they’ll give him a national broadcast in exchange for him leading his people out safely. This excites Koresh, so he gets on the phone. He agrees to the deal.

Day 3. While the Christian Broadcasting Network plays Koresh’s recording, Steve and Judy tune in to CNN, where they discover one of the released children was killed trying to sneak back into the compound, and that two members who surrendered to authorities were charged for the murders of the ATF agents. Livid, Steve talks to Byron. Byron still wants them to come out, but Steve tells him the rules have changed. Frustrated with the way the negotiations are going, Rogers tries to push Jamar into going in there. Jamar acts like he’d like to go in there, but his hands are tied — it all goes back to Washington. The deputy director in Washington, FLOYD CLARKE, is distracted with the World Trade Center bombing and the fact that they have no attorney general and a brand new President. Meanwhile, Koresh — recuperating nicely from his wound — rallies his group by telling him he heard the Lord’s voice, and it’s given him the strength to resist the authorities. God has a plan for him. Steve looks on, clearly troubled.

Day 12. Steve tries to work out arrangements to get the remaining kids to relatives. With Byron unable to make guarantees, the negotiations are about to fall apart when Byron starts undermining Steve’s implicit trust in Koresh. Suddenly, Jamar and Rogers cut the power to the compound. The Branch Davidians are all terrified about what might happen next. Day 13. The FBI drops a cooler of milk cartons off at Mt. Carmel. The group speculates that it’s drugged, but Steve insists they aren’t all bad — Byron wants to help them. It turns out the milk cartons are bugged. Rogers and Jamar are thrilled with the conversations they’re able to record. Janet Reno is sworn in as the Attorney General. She’s brought up to speed and asks why they’ve violated the “10-day rule.” Clarke explains that Waco is unique because it lacks hostages and demands. Reno insists the children are hostages and tells them to figure out something they’d be willing to trade for the children. If they can’t, the FBI will be forced to wait them out.

Day 19. Byron meets Steve personally, outside the compound, under the strict supervision of armed agents. Byron tries to convince Steve to give up the children, pointing out that the adults may have made a choice to stay here, but the kids haven’t. Steve tries to explain to them that these are families that will be broken up. Byron tells him to consider it, and they’ll meet the following day. Byron’s confident that he’s breaking through to Steve. That night, Rogers sends tanks and bulldozers to smash Koresh’s cars and go-karts. He’s shocked and angry and insults Steve for continuing to talk to them. Later, hidden in a storage room, Steve grabs Judy. She’s uneasy about being alone with him. Judy begs her to take the kids and leave with him. She isn’t sure, but before he can convince her, the FBI aims floodlights into the compound and blasts the noises of animals being tortured. In response, Koresh and a couple of his friends — former wannabe rock stars — pick up instruments and amplifiers and drown them out with classic rock. The next day, a fellow negotiator stands up to Jamar about the practice of punishing the Davidians for doing exactly what they’ve been asked. He’s dismissed.

Day 27. Protestors begin gathering around the media. Among them, TIMOTHY McVEIGH. Rogers tries to convince Byron ramming the building with tanks is the best option, because it’ll create escape routes. Byron tells him that they don’t want to escape. Jamar says they will, once they start piping in CS nerve gas. Byron says that’s pointless because they have gas masks. Jamar callously notes that the masks only fit adults. Byron is horrified that they’d gas children in order to get the adults out. That night, Byron vents to Pete Smerick. Pete tells Byron that Koresh is a classic psychopath, and that Rogers’ strategy plays right into his hands. He manipulates his followers by promising the end is nigh. What more proof than surrounding them with tanks and armed agents?

Day 40. Pete discovers that memos he’s been sending to D.C. regarding Rogers and Jamar have been returned — and they’re completely different from what he really wrote. Clarke is intentionally changing the memos to control the narrative. The FBI finally finds something the Davidians may want: DICK DEGUERIN a defense attorney who’s been begging to take a crack at their impending case. The Davidians are actually impressed by DeGuerin — he convinces them that the ATF committed a crime against them, and they responded in a way that’s legal according to Texas Penal Code. Koresh isn’t entirely sure, but DeGuerin hints that he’s their last shot at getting out of this peacefully. Meanwhile, Jamar announces that Rogers has drafted a plan of action. Byron says they went leave, so Jamar points to a portion of the plan — a reprint of Pete’s doctored memo. Byron’s shocked by this, and even more shocked when he learns Pete requested a transfer. Byron refuses to sign the plan of action, because they negotiated a complete evacuation plan with DeGuerin. Rogers convinces Byron that he’s in denial; DeGuerin’s plan is worthless.

Steve goes outside and is shocked that the FBI bombards him with flashbang grenades. He complains to Byron, who tells Steve his bosses’ patience is wearing thin. DeGuerin explains the details of the evacuation plan to Koresh, who says it’s fine — except God has spoken to him and told him he can’t leave until he writes a book, sharing God’s wisdom with regards to the Seven Seals. Steve tries to convince Judy to help Koresh speed up his plan. At this point, Steve just wants out — he wants to return to Wisconsin with her and the kids. In secret, they make love for the first time in years.

Day 46. Rogers tries to convince Vince Foster and Janet Reno that their assault plan, Operation Jericho, is the best method. They bring in a doctor to testify to the safety of CS gas in moderation. Reno asks about children, which takes the doctor by surprise. The doctor tells him it’s flammable, and when inflamed, it turns to cyanide. Foster and Reno are turned off. They order Rogers to wait. Clarke realizes he needs to motivate Reno to end this, once and for all. Day 50. Clarke boldly lies to her face, saying that they have word the Davidians are beating babies, and he refuses to allow the FBI to be held responsible for the safety of the children. Reno orders Operation Jericho.

A replay of the conversation that opened the script leads to Day 51: Operation Jericho. Tanks modified to inject CS gas into the walls of the compound rumble forward. Byron calls Steve to assure him this is not an assault, that they’re releasing a low level of gas over the next 48 hours to slowly subdue and arrest the Davidians. The Davidians immediately start shooting. Discouraged by the shooting, Rogers orders that they escalate the amount of CS gas. Those not wearing gas masks are immediately overwhelmed, but the ones in gas masks continue shooting. The women and children move to a concrete bunker. The FBI nearly uses up their entire 48-hour supply of CS in two hours. Rogers orders Jamar that it’s time for an assault. The Davidians try to fight back. An HRT agent asks Rogers if it’s acceptable to use pyrotechnic rounds. Despite his awareness of the gas’s flammability, Rogers okays it. Koresh and Steve are spotted in the bunker, so the tanks target it. Watching on a monitor in his office, Vince Foster is shocked by the escalation of violence.

The tank continues to bash the concrete room, terrifying the women and children. The tank driver is confused as to why nobody’s come out. Steve finds Judy and his children dead, among other corpses. The combination of pyrotechnic rounds and the Davidians’ attempting to make molotov cocktails with kerosene. Dazed, Steve goes up to Koresh’s bedroom. Koresh quotes from Revelation, pointing out how wrong Steve was to doubt him. Steve tells him his problem was not doubting him. As the fire spreads crazily from the gas, Byron gets on the P.A. and tells survivors to follow the sound of his voice if they can’t see through the smoke. While Koresh continues to quote from Revelation, Steve shoots him in the head. Stunned by his own action, he bursts into tears and shoots himself. This creates a huge explosion.

Over the P.A., Byron pleads for David or Steve to lead the survivors out. Jamar, now sympathetic to Byron, quietly tells him to shut off the P.A. “Negotiations are over.” Byron is disgusted when he learns only a few of the Davidians survived. Jamar holds a press conference explaining that the FBI did everything possible to save the Davidians. Amid the rubble and charred bodies, Byron notices a piece of parchment — a burned fragment of Wayne Martin’s framed copy of the Constitution.


Waco attempts to document the true story of the infamous FBI standoff at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas. Despite the level of detail in the storytelling and some compelling individual scenes, the script’s thin characters and extreme emphasis on the lurid details of the two raids undermine the importance of the events surrounding this story. As written, it merits a pass.

After a quick opening sequence introduces the two main characters just before Operation Jericho, the entire first act is devoted to the ATF raid leading to the Branch Davidians’ 51-day standoff. The writers lay some of the political groundwork surrounding the raid, but mostly, it’s an extended gun battle that leads to the FBI takeover, in which negotiator Byron and Koresh lieutenant Steve start to take a more prominent role in the story.

The second act makes an attempt to focus on Byron and Steve’s bonding over the course of the negotiations, juxtaposing Byron’s effort to win Steve over with Byron’s FBI superiors constantly counteracting his negotiations with actions that are more likely to erupt in violence. The dialogue between Byron and Steve rarely feels like a true bond is forming between them. The writers attempt to draw some parallels between the two — notably in their attempts to be reasonable in the face of unreasonable superiors — but their many conversations come across like two men talking in circles.

Like the first act, the third act is a lengthy, leering account of “Operation Jericho,” the FBI’s botched attempt to “peacefully” resolve the standoff. As a consequence of focusing more on the mayhem than the characters, Byron gets lost in the shuffle, and Steve’s final moments with Koresh aren’t nearly as compelling as they should be. During these fact-focused scenes, the script feels less like a fully developed dramatic story than as a series of events that happen with little rhyme or reason, other than the practical fact that they’re true.

The problem is a direct result of characters who are never really as developed as they need to be to make this story feel like something more than a group of robots acting out scripted events. Byron and Steve are the main characters by virtue of the fact that the script focuses on them more than the others, but the writer doesn’t dig deep into who they are. Is Byron really as emotionally invested in this as he lets on, or is he just a great negotiator? What compelled Steve and his wife to follow Koresh in the first place? Answers to simple questions like these would have greatly enhanced the details of these stories.

The thin characters also creates an oddly skewed look at the story. Aside from Byron and Pete, everyone in the FBI is portrayed as sinister and bloodthirsty, with no clear motivation for this behavior. At the same time, the Branch Davidians are shown as just regular people being oppressed by a vicious government. The writers consciously downplay facts vital in shaping the true lifestyle at Mt. Carmel: rampant sexual abuse of girls as young as 12, an Apocalypse-obsessed leader who sincerely believes he talks directly to God, a group of followers who sincerely believe their leader talks directly to God, a stockpile of gas masks, and enough assault rifles and ammunition for an army — all of these suggest something deeper and more disturbing that the writers simply ignore.

It’s clear that the ATF and FBI handled things as poorly as possible, but the rosy portrayal of the Branch Davidians doesn’t match reality any more than the notion that the FBI simply wanted these people dead. More depth and detail for characters on both sides would create a much more balanced story that might allow audiences to draw their own conclusions rather than skewing it one way or the other. Without a significant rewrite, this script will only succeed in generating controversy.

Posted by D. B. Bates on October 30, 2009 1:32 PM