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Waco at 30: 6 Essential Shows and Documentaries About the 1993 Siege

Netflix's Waco documentary and Waco: The Aftermath offer new insight into the tragedy.
  • Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and the 1993 siege at the group's compound have long held the public's interest. (Photos: Netflix/Showtime)
    Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and the 1993 siege at the group's compound have long held the public's interest. (Photos: Netflix/Showtime)

    It’s been 30 years since federal authorities raided the Branch Davidian compound in Texas, but the Waco siege continues to captivate the American public. On February 28, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) attempted to execute a search warrant on the religious cult’s Mount Carmel Center ranch, but a shootout began, resulting in the deaths of four agents and six Branch Davidians. For 51 days, FBI agents besieged the compound and traded fire with leader David Koresh and his members, until April 19, 1993, when they launched a tear gas attack. A fire soon engulfed the building, leading to the deaths of Koresh and 75 Branch Davidians and bringing the standoff to an end.

    At the time, the Waco siege was a massive cable news event, and filmmakers responded to the overwhelming interest in the case with a slew of documentaries, specials, and made-for-TV movies. Some of these veer into the conspiracy theory space — the less said about Alex Jones’ 2000 documentary on the subject, the better — while others offer a more balanced examination of the massacre, like the Emmy-winning Waco: The Rules of Engagement.

    Decades later, television continues to tap into viewers’ fascination with all things cults and conspiracies with a series of scripted projects and new documentaries about the tragedy. Together, these documentaries, shows, and TV movies offer a comprehensive look at the siege, the months of investigation that followed, and its far-reaching impact. From Ambush in Waco to Showtime’s upcoming sequel Waco: The Aftermath, here’s your guide to the many Waco documentaries and shows on streaming.

    In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco (1993)

    Streaming on Prime Video, Peacock, Amazon Freevee, and Tubi

    With interest at an all-time high during the 51-day standoff, NBC jumped at the chance to dramatize the events occurring at the Axtell, Texas ranch, located 13 miles from Waco. Produced during the siege and released just one month after fatal fire, In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco dramatized the events leading up to the February 28, 1993 shootout. Tim Daly (Wings) starred as Koresh, who’s presented as a man illegally stockpiling weapons and abusing the children in the community, while William O’Leary (Home Improvement) and Neal McDonough (Band of Brothers) played young Branch Davidians who come to question their leader’s supposed divine inspiration. Interestingly, writer Phil Penningroth — who wrote NBC TV movie Amy Fisher: My Story the previous year — has since expressed remorse for the film’s pro-ATF perspective and harsh depiction of the Branch Davidians, writing in 2001, “The more I learned about what had really happened, the more I regretted the flawed movie I’d written.”

    Waco, the Big Lie (1993)

    Streaming on YouTube

    If Ambush in Waco presented the government’s version of events, Waco, the Big Lie went the opposite route. Released in 1993 (and followed by a sequel the following year), the 31-minute film challenged the official narrative around the siege, particularly as it relates to the April 19, 1993 fire. Filmmaker Linda Thompson, a lawyer and gun rights advocate, relied on dubious video evidence to claim that an armored vehicle with a flamethrower attached set fire to the building, an allegation the FBI denies. (The Bureau has long contended that its officers “fired no shots on that day and the Davidians started the fires that ultimately engulfed the compound.”)

    While many of Thompson’s conspiracy theories have been debunked, the documentary serves as a footnote in the rise of the militia movement in the U.S.: The film was screened for the jury during the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who sought revenge for the Waco siege and 1992 Ruby Ridge incident.

    Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997)

    Streaming on Kanopy

    Unlike Ambush in Waco and Waco, the Big Lie, which were produced in the immediate aftermath of the siege, Waco: The Rules of Engagement benefited from the many investigations that were conducted in the years that followed. The 1997 documentary, directed by William Gazecki and narrated by CNN’s Dan Gifford, combined tapes of the FBI’s negotiation with Koresh and the Branch Davidians, home videos recorded inside the compound, information gleaned from Congressional hearings on Waco, and in-depth interviews with cult survivors and law enforcement officers. Ultimately, The Rules of Engagement came down on the side of the Branch Davidians, accusing FBI agents of shooting into the ranch on April 19, 1993, though the FLIR technology underpinning this conclusion has been called into question.

    Iffy technology or not, The Rules of Engagement was the first wide-ranging documentary produced on the Waco siege, and the production team — which also included Amy Sommer Gifford and Michael McNulty — was met with a wave of acclaim. In 1998, the feature-length documentary won a News & Documentary Emmy for Outstanding Investigative Journalism and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. McNulty went on to release a sequel, Waco: A New Revelation, and The F.L.I.R. Project, which further investigated the infra-red evidence presented in the 1997 film.

    Waco (2018)

    Streaming on Paramount+ and Showtime

    In 2018, Paramount Network debuted a dramatized take on the standoff — though many viewers didn’t discover it until two years later, when it landed on Netflix and became an early-pandemic hit. The six-episode limited series starred Taylor Kitsch (of Friday Night Lights fame) as Koresh, who’s sympathetically portrayed as a misunderstood man who got in over his head, and Michael Shannon as Gary Noesner, the head of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit.

    Waco alternated between these two perspectives, while also incorporating the stories of Branch Davidians fighting to survive inside the compound over the 51-day period, like David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin), who escaped the fire and went on to co-author a memoir about his experience; Koresh’s lieutenant Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks) and his wife Judy (Andrea Riseborough); and Michele Jones (Julia Garner), who’s forced to marry David against her will. Much of this backstory came from Thibodeau’s book, A Place Called Waco, and Noesner’s memoir, Stalling For Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, lending the series an air of authenticity.

    Waco: American Apocalypse (2023)

    Streaming March 22 on Netflix

    Released to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the tragedy, Netflix’s Waco: American Apocalypse has been pitched as “the definitive account of what happened in Waco, Texas in 1993.” Tiller Russell (Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer) directs the three-part documentary series, which uses computer-generated reenactments to plunge viewers into the weeks-long siege. There’s nothing revolutionary about this approach, but American Apocalypse separates itself from the pack with its trove of never-before-seen footage, including recently unearthed videotapes filmed inside the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit, raw news footage never released to the public, and FBI recordings. The Netflix docuseries also boasts emotional interviews with one of Koresh’s spiritual wives, the last child rescued from the compound, and ATF members who watched their colleagues die in the initial shootout.

    Waco: The Aftermath (2023)

    Streaming on Showtime April 14 (and on-air April 16)

    Five years after Waco, Showtime picks up where its sister network left off with a sequel series, Waco: The Aftermath. As the title suggests, the follow-up centers on the fallout of the disaster, particularly the trials of the surviving Branch Davidians, and the rise of domestic terrorists Timothy McVeigh (played by Alex Breaux) and Terry Nichols (Kieran Mulcare), who orchestrated the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The five-episode dramatization also zooms out to explore Waco’s role in the escalation of the American militia movement and the threat it continues to pose to the public.

    Waco: The Aftermath sees four stars reprise their roles from the 2018 series: Michael Shannon as FBI negotiator Gary Noesner; John Leguizamo as Jacob Vazquez, the ATF agent who went undercover in the Branch Davidian compound; Shea Whigham as FBI agent Mitch Decker; and Annika Marks as survivor Kathryn Schroeder. Joining the returning stars are Sasheer Zamata (Saturday Night Live), who plays experienced ATF agent Angela Graham, Gary Cole (Veep) as private investigator Gordon Novel, and Michael Vincent Berry (Better Call Saul) as early Davidian leader George Roden.

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    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Waco, In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco, Waco: American Apocalypse, Waco: The Aftermath, Waco, the Big Lie, Waco: The Rules of Engagement, David Koresh, Branch Davidians