Talk about a reality check. On April 19 producer Kenneth Kaufman was in eastern Oklahoma shooting an NBC movie about the ongoing conflict in Waco, Texas. As he arrived on the set-a replica of the Branch Davidian compound-an assistant approached him in tears. "They're burning down the compound!" she gasped. Kaufman raced to a nearby trailer and switched on its TV just in time to catch the first smoke emerging from the roof. For the next 20 minutes, he and his crew sat mesmerized as the story they were reenacting for NBC came to a fiery finish on CNN. "It was surreal," he recalls. "Later all of us had a difficult time articulating how we felt."
How about a wee bit abashed? "In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco," which airs May 23, isn't just the latest attempt to turn real-life tragedy into a Nielsen payoff. It has also set a dubious speed record-the first docu-drama about a horrific disaster filmed while the disaster was still unfolding. But the record isn't safe. Stirred to a froth by the huge ratings of last winter's Amy Fisher trilogy, the networks are ripping stories from the headlines and slamming them on the screen with unprecedented haste. In fact, "Ambush in Waco" is merely the opening act of yet another triple-header horror show. On May 24 NBC will air a docudrama about the devastation of Hurricane Andrew and, on May 26, a movie about the World Trade Center bombing. Uh-huh, May is a ratings-sweeps month.
As drama, "Ambush in Waco" (the only one of the NBC trio available for review) pushes all the right buttons. Tim Daly ("Wings"), who plays David Koresh, bears a separated-at-birth likeness to the late cult leader, and he gives great charisma. It's scary to watch Koresh's followers succumb to his seductions, and this two-hour shockudrama positively throbs with seductions. Imagine a dozen Amy Fishers falling for the same stud, only this one's come-ons run to: "God has told me to give you my seed, Libby." Where did Kaufman get such lines? "From our interviews with former Davidians," he says. "Experts on the Koresh story will be blown away by how much reality is in this film."
Or, more likely, turned off by what's left out. To make the May sweeps, NBC rushed its Waco treatment into development only one day after federal agents raided the compound on Feb. 28. But that deadline also meant the filmmakers had no time to update: the docu-drama ends where it was initially intended to end-at the start of the 5 1-day standoff. Time, of course, has a way of dispelling the haze around mysteries, of which this tragedy has an unnerving number. "We still don't know how the fire started or who shot who," says ABC senior vice president Judd Parkin. "Dramatizing such events before they're fully resolved can be irresponsible. In a way, it almost preempts the news."
Though Parkin's objectivity may be suspect (ABC has its own Koresh docu-drama in the works), he's right about "Ambush in Waco." The film perfectly illustrates the sins of snatched-from-the-headlines dramas. It isn't just their odor of exploitation or their penchant for selling fiction as fact: we've become all too accustomed to that. What's less obvious is the genre's habit, exacerbated by haste, of reducing a complex story to the simplest, most viewer-friendly terms. In its take on Waco, NBC portrays the agents for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which eagerly opened its files to the filmmakers, as flawless heroes. Courageous they were, but, in light of their botched raid, such glorification reeks of whitewashing. Nor do the docu-dramatists make any effort to understand-let alone derive a lesson from-the Waco horror. We witness Koresh's descent from guitar-strumming charmer to raging paranoid, but we never catch a glimpse of the demons that drove him. "So is he a nut?" a federal agent asks his chief. "Not all the time," comes the reply-and that's the closest we ever get.
Still, get ready for a lot more. In high-visibility disasters like Waco, the networks see a way to survival: instantly recognizable "concepts" with a presold market. No wonder docu-drama producers now arrive on the scene right behind the local-news minicam vans. "We've reached the point," says ABC's Parkin, "where TV movies and news shows are competing for the very same stories." Still to come: instant telepics about the seven Colorado skiers who survived being lost in a blizzard, the abortion doctor murder in Pensacola, Fla., the Gainesville, Fla., student slayings and the Katie Beers kidnapping case.
Wait, there's one more. NBC is considering a sequel to "Ambush in Waco," but will hold off on a decision until the film's Nielsen returns are in. Who says these people don't know how to be patient?
Former Davidian cultists and wounded federal agents.
Building an exact replica of the compound, complete with satellite dish and water tower.
"It's the nature of the business today."-Producer Kenneth Kaufman
New York's Rescue One team.
Making Portland, Ore., look, feel and talk like New York.
"We wanted to jump on it before the other networks jumped on it. "-An NBC spokeswoman
Bryan Norcross, the Miami weatherman who broadcast for 23 straight hours and who sold NBC his rights.
Replicating 100-mph winds with giant fans doused with water.
"Strong commercial considerations."-Producer Brian Pike