TV's new disaster movies rooted in pseudo-reality True horrors become sweeps fare

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Did self-proclaimed messiah David Koresh force 12-year-old girls to have sex with him?

NBC believes inquiring minds want to know. And the network will provide answers with "In the Line of Duty: Ambush at Waco," a made-for-TV docudrama that airs tonight.

It's only fitting that a television season swamped with the pseudo-reality of fact-based movies should end with an orgy of such films in the final week.

In addition to "Ambush at Waco," NBC will also air "Triumph Over Disaster: The Hurricane Andrew Story" and "Without Warning: Terror in the Towers" tomorrow and Wednesday nights, respectively.

The Koresh film, which stars Tim Daly ("Wings"), is the one that has people talking. One reason is the near-instant turnaround time. Koresh and dozens of his followers -- including children -- died April 19 in a ball of fire televised live around the world. Now comes the movie, just a little more than a month later.

There are also all the newspaper and TV reports of what went on at Koresh's compound in Waco, Texas -- Koresh forcing the men to be celibate while he had sex with their wives, Koresh having sex with children, Koresh meting out severe corporal punishment.

There is something that seems especially cynical about NBC packaging the Waco story and the other dramatized versions of real-life death and disaster together this way on the final week of May sweeps -- a ratings period that has been excessively violent even by sweeps standards.

Do these films -- taken in the context of the Amy Fisher movies and the glut of other ripped-from-the-headlines fare this year -- mark a new low in network programming? And, if "Ambush in Waco" gets the kind of big ratings it's expected to, what does that say about those of us who watch?

"I'm a little surprised by the questions," said Kenneth Kaufman, executive producer of the Koresh film. "I find them very hard to understand.

"Tim Daly said it's so ironic that in interviews which he did, some of the journalists' first questions involved taste and exploitation. It's ironic, because right after the fire, we had 30 or 35 journalists on our set. We couldn't get rid of them, because they were trying to sell papers with stories about our movie. So it seems a little like the pot calling the kettle black."

Kaufman said it's unfair to judge his movie by journalistic standards.

"We wanted to talk to personalities. We wanted to tell a human story," he said. "And I think the politics of it and all the historical analysis is left for other media. Our goals are a little different than the goals of the New York Times or The Baltimore Sun."

Kaufman's feelings were echoed by Brian Pike, the executive producer of "Hurricane Andrew." Pike, a former vice president of drama development at NBC, said the films should be judged on their own standards.

And the standard that Pike and Kaufman value most involves appearances. They said their overriding goal was to make the people and places in their movies look like the people and places that viewers saw in newscasts.

"I'll give you an example," Kaufman said. "Everybody in America saw on their nightly news -- every night from Feb. 28th on -- the compound in Waco, Texas.

"We needed to find a geographic site that mimicked that, and we needed to build such a place, because the minute visually you saw something that didn't look like Waco, you'd say the movie is a piece of s-- .

"Those are the kinds of things you worry about as a producer, because one little thing like that and your credibility is gone."

Success of artifice

Using that standard of how close the artifice of the TV movie matches the look of the real event as seen in TV news, "Ambush in Waco" is a great success. In makeup, Daly looks like Koresh. And the compound Kaufman's crew built outside Tulsa, Okla., where the film was shot, looks like the one we viewed for weeks through those unsteady, long-lens camera shots.

But, judged by any number of other standards, the film gets failing grades. It is exploitative in the worst way. It titillates with the sexual weirdness and extreme punishment of children that went on behind compound doors. It revels in the violence of the shootout between federal agents and Koresh's followers. But it gives absolutely no context, explanation or insight.

Koresh simply pops up at the start of the the film, full-grown and singing with his rock band. Viewers are never told where he came from or how he got the way he was.

Typical of the film's style of trying to push viewers' emotional buttons without resolving any of the feelings aroused is a scene where Koresh punishes one of his sons, age 8, for not responding immediately to one of his commands. Koresh takes the terrified child and locks him in a shed with rats. He tells the boy to kneel, pray and be brave -- "like Daniel in the lion's den" -- when the rats come for him.

But viewers are never told if rats did bite the boy or if any psychological damage was done. The filmmakers simply seem to forget about the boy as they careen along the back-and-forth narrative -- from life inside the compound to life at headquarters where the federal agents are plotting their assault on the compound.

Most frustrating is the way the film deals with key elements in the story. For example, it indicates that Koresh was tipped off to the raid by a U.S. mailman, but never actually says that. It shows a 12-year-old girl coming out of Koresh's room late at night in bed clothes, but she says, "We were just talking." In that respect, it is a very frustrating movie, promising much and delivering very little.

Not determining truth

Similar incidents may or may not have occurred, but filmmakers like Kaufman have conveniently decided that determining the truth is the problem of reporters and historians.

Kaufman says he wants to "talk to personalities . . . to tell a human story." For him, credibility comes from building a compound that looks like the real one when it's photographed and from finding an actor who looks like Koresh when he puts on makeup, not from establishing exactly who did what when and to whom.

And, in a culture that's become increasingly visually oriented, thanks in part to television, maybe filmmakers like Kaufman are more in touch with the public than critics who rail against their movies because they play so loose with facts. Maybe seeing is more important than knowing when it comes to believing.

As Pike says, "For all the concerns I might have, . . . these movies seem to be what the viewers want. . . . The audience does have a certain appetite for reality-driven programming."

And there are those who say there's nothing wrong with that appetite.

"There are certain stories, like Amy Fisher and Waco, that when they are dramatized, give the public a chance to get involved in the discussion of important issues," said Lawrence Mintz, who teaches popular culture at the University of Maryland in College Park.

"The ambiguity of the story is what's important," Mintz added. "It can't be a clear-cut story, like triple ax murderer kills a whole bunch of people. It has to have important issues that people can take sides on.

"Were these crazy people in Waco, or were they religious victims of government interference? . . . A made-for-TV movie can involve the public in that debate."

Mintz applauds that democratic potential. He also said he thinks some newspaper critics might feel threatened by it just as political reporters were threatened when presidential politics moved beyond their purview and onto MTV and "The Larry King Show" in 1992.

Does that mean, then, that the Amy Fisher and David Koresh movies are a positive development, which speaks well of television and popular taste?

It's not that simple. All it means is there's nothing automatically wrong with wanting to know what went on behind closed doors at the Branch Davidian compound. And nobody should be made to feel bad about tuning in tonight for answers.

VIEWING TIMES

For Baltimore-area viewers:

* "In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco" airs tonight at 9 on WMAR (Channel 2).

* "Triumph Over Disaster: Hurricane Andrew," which airs on NBC Monday night, will be pre-empted by WMAR (Channel 2) for an Orioles' baseball game. It has not been rescheduled.

* "Without Warning: Terror in the Towers" airs Wednesday at 9 on WMAR (Channel 2).

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