On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman opened fire from the observation deck of “The Tower” at the University of Texas at Austin. Over the course of 90 minutes, he shot 32 men and women, killing 14. Earlier that day, he also killed his wife and mother at their respective homes.
Tower, a new documentary from director Keith Maitland, tells the story, employing rotoscope animation to give us a first-person glimpse of the men and women involved that hot August day. It’s a tragic moment in American history, and this approach, which appears to fictionalize aspects to a certain degree, initially comes across as very false at best and exploitative at worst.
I respect efforts to push the form of documentary filmmaking beyond talking head interviews that intersperse archival or stock footage, but this movie felt invasive and uncomfortable. Are these individuals — like the pregnant student or the young paperboy — sharing their recollections from the grave? And even if they aren’t, what sort of license does Maitland have to put words in their mouths?
As the film settles in, it’s clear not only that he’s treating the event and the dead with the utmost respect, but also that his methods are novel and exhilarating. The rotoscope makes us feel the delirium that surely accompanies lying on blacktop in the sweltering Texas sun, wondering if you’ll ever escape alive. It brings the men and women being profiled back to that day, offering us, the viewers, added layers of authenticity and immediacy that are powerful yet not overwhelming. It’s the best example I can think of in modern filmmaking of a talking-head doc that shows and doesn’t so much tell, and it’s one of the best movies of 2016.
Also among the viewpoints presented are those of a journalist who reported live from the scene, a high school student who risked everything to save the pregnant woman pinned down by the threat of Whitman’s rifle, and the various law enforcement officials (including a just-deputized shopkeeper) who storm the tower and ultimately take Whitman out. The journalist’s perspective is particularly interesting from a filmmaking perspective because Maitland uses various opportunities to splice in actual archival footage, rather than the animation that will likely define the film. In some cases, characters are animated over black-and-white archival footage. It’s all quite fascinating.
The film, however, is more than an intellectual exercise. It’s also a moving portrait of collective action. There’s the woman who runs to lay next to the trapped pregnant woman in an effort to keep her alive and awake. Her selflessness is inspiring. Ditto the courage displayed by the high school students and the first responders. And as the film explores these individuals’ relationships post-tower, it adds quite a bit of emotional depth to the proceedings.
Tower looms large not just because 2016 marks the event’s 50th anniversary, but also because it’s relatively forgotten among dozens of mass shootings (many at schools) since. The events in Austin should have been a moment of reckoning, but as the years ticked along, the general public’s memory of that day faded, and we collectively allowed versions of Tower‘s story to happen again and again and again. We’re numb to them now, and it’s both disheartening and disturbing. This film seems like an improbable agent of change (mainly because those who need to see it won’t), but it’s such a skillful and respectful portrait of tragedy that I wouldn’t put anything past it.