Tower (2016) / Documentary-Animation
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG-13 for intense and violent content
Running Time: 82 min. (originally 96 min.)
Cast: Violett Beane, Louis Arnette, Blair Jackson, Monty Muir, Chris Doubek, Reece Everett Ryan, Josephine McAdam
Director: Keith Maitland
Review published January 11, 2017
Tower is a thoroughly researched and meticulously recreated documentary, with some docudrama aspects, regarding the shootings perpetrated by a sniper hiding up a clock tower in the middle of the campus at the University of Texas at Austin on August 1, 1966 -- the first and deadliest of mass school shootings in the US. In the ninety minutes of his free reign to fire upon those below at will, up to eighteen people were killed and another thirty-two were wounded before he was finally taken down by the authorities.
Director Keith Maitland seeks not to get us into the psyche of the madman who committed the act (Charles Whitman is barely mentioned at all), but rather, or us to feel what it must have been like for the victims at the end of his rifle. To do this, Maitland culls together actual newsreel and camcorder footage, along with archival photographs of the event, and a few talking head interviews from survivors and eyewitnesses, as you'd expect. What's not so expected is that, in order to make us feel more like we are following a narrative of real people in dangerous situations, Maitland cast a crew of actors to portray and simulate the actions of those innocent people on the ground, as well as a couple of the law enforcement officers trying to apprehend the killer, so that he can get us up close and personal with the events of the day.
Perhaps what's most unique about these recreations is not that they've been recreated in the middle of a documentary, which is rare enough, but that they are also vividly rendered into animation, using a rotoscopic technique that will be readily recognizable for those who've also seen the work of another Austin filmmaker, Richard Linklater, who used the process in two of his films, A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life. (Tower's director of animation, Craig Staggs, also served as an animator on A Scanner Darkly). The process not only makes the film feel timeless in its approach, save for a few vintage oldies on the soundtrack, but also gets up up close and personal to the events that the newsreel footage either never captured, or had only done so from a distance.
Also interesting is the way that Maitland chooses to also recreate and animate the present-day interviews of those who are recollecting the events that transpired. Actors who are portraying the individual real-life people read the transcript of the interviews in front of a camera, and then these segments are also rotoscoped in order to give us the words and remembrances from the mouths of the representation of the younger counterparts as they appeared on that day. There is a point where those animations fall away to reveal the real people as they currently exist several decades later, in a poignant reveal that captures the significance and emotions of those souls that have evidently not been fully healed because of the fact that, to a large extent, Austin has only recently started to acknowledge the incident. A couple of the participants of the interview remark that they had not discussed what happened to others in the many years since, until they were interviewed for a recent article, as well as for Tower. As such, their testimony still carries the essence of fresh and unhealed wounds, with only the passage of time as the only scar tissue that has covered them, as they describe the shock, guilt, and shame of the experience, wishing they could have done even more than they did.
While at 82 minutes (cut for purpose of focus from its original 96-minute run time to remove the obvious allusions to later shootings) it isn't quite a real-time portrayal of the events, it certainly feels like it could have been, as we see the events transpire from several perspectives, and from the vantage point of a handful of people who were clinging for life on the ground below. The most harrowing of the recollections comes from the shooter's first victim, Claire, a pregnant woman who lost both her unborn child as well as her beloved boyfriend that day, while she too had been hanging on for her very life on the blazing hot concrete. Of particular interest is the fact that two heroic individuals would end up saving her life, both complete strangers, one a woman who out herself in harm's way in order to comfort Claire, and another a man named John who jumped in front of the bullets as he sought to get her completely out of the way so that she could not get targeted again.
Other "characters" followed include Aleck, a boy who was shot while delivering newspapers on his bike, Neal, a newsman who had been capturing the events to inform the public, and Allen, the manager of a nearby bookstore who had been deputized by the inadequately armed police officers, Ramiro and Houston (who are also showcased), as they responded to the chaos immediately by trying to make their way into the tower to take down the heavily armed assailant. Not all of the interviews are made for this movie, as some of the eyewitnesses and participants have died, though their words have been captured in prior interviews and testimony that Maitland recreates for his attempt to build the narrative for our perusal.
Tower is not only a grim reminder of the tragedy that befell many students and bystanders on that hot and fateful day fifty years ago, but also that this is the kind of thing that has happened time and again on many days ever since in other places and times, and could (and will) happen again tomorrow. It's a fitting, non-agendized memorial, not only to the fallen, but also to the heroes who bravely put their lives on the line to take action amid the chaos of an indiscriminate killer who could, and certainly would, have had no compulsion about killing whomever happened to be stirring down below in front of his sights. While the events of the Austin sniper happened 50 years ago, Maitland's approach gives depiction of the pain and the panic a timeless quality that will churn the stomachs of just about anyone who watches his potent and harrowing recreation of that nightmarish day.
©2017 Vince Leo