Director: Keith Maitland/2016
50 years ago, August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman unleashed 96 minutes of carnage on the University of Texas campus, taking a sniper position on the observation deck of the U.T. tower where he would kill 16 people and wound 31 others. To commemorate this monumentally tragic milestone, director Keith Maitland, has created a documentary simply called Tower that seeks to put the viewer into the horrific line of sight of Charles Whitman’s gun and to honor the victims and celebrate the heroes of that day.
This documentary is very unique. Not only does it use first person interviews, and archived film from the actual events, but it also uses an animated format called rotoscopic animation to put the audience directly into the events themselves. This was very unique and really brought the events to life. Basically actors, who look like the 1960’s version of the actual people being interviewed today, are animated in a style to A Scanner Darkly. It gives you the look of actual people, but it allows the filmmaker to re-enact the events based on the first person testimony of the actual people, and then incorporate traditional animation to show things like bullet strikes on people and buildings, all the while maintaining the documentary format.
The actors used to create this animation look are also narrating these sections using the actual recorded testimony provided by the people who were there, though now in the younger voice to give you the feel of hearing the testimony as it was fresh 50 years ago. Later, the film will cut from this animated testimony re-enactments to the more recent interviews with the actual people and we will hear the voice change as well as see the individuals age from the animated 1960’s version of themselves to the more recent footage. It helps to create a seamless transition across these 50 years much like a traditional bio-pic might by casting actors to play the same character at different ages, but here you are still hearing and seeing the very words from the real people in the events. This is such an interesting way to approach a film like this, and I think the director pulled it off.
The fact is that this film took an historical event from 50 years ago and engaged me in such a way so as to produce a very real and visceral response. When you see this film as the documentation of one of the first mass school shootings in what is now a long line of school shootings carrying us forward to Columbine, Virginia Tech and others, it becomes all the more haunting and relevant to today’s audience.
The documentary covers the events of that fateful day, as well as the aftermath. It first follows a pregnant woman and her boyfriend who were crossing the mall in front of the tower when they were struck by the bullets, before cutting to 2 cousins on a bike in the middle of doing their paper route who were also struck. A man who ran the university co-op (bookstore) gets involved in assisting the boys on the bike before having to run for cover himself, which led him running toward the tower for cover, rather than away from it back to his bookstore since it would expose him too much to the gunman’s line of sight. This man, Alan Crum, would eventually be verbally deputized by a police officer and would accompany him, with gun in hand, to the observation deck to confront the Charles Whitman. We then see how these individuals, as well as others who assisted victims, dealt with the shock of having gone through such a horrific event, and how it still affects them today.
While the events of August 1, 1966 lasted for 96 minutes, the documentary film also lasts for that same time length. That is not to say that it covers the events in real time, but simply that the running time of the entire coverage of this event and its aftermath lasts the same amount of time as the horrors of this infamous day did in the Texas state capital of Austin.
The fact is that this film took an historical event from 50 years ago and engaged me in such a way so as to produce a very real and visceral response. When you see this film as the documentation of one of the first mass school shootings in what is now a long line of school shootings carrying us forward to Columbine, Virginia Tech and others, it becomes all the more haunting and relevant to today’s audience. This is the true power of Tower, and why it has already been playing various festivals and screening to critical acclaim. This is a film that I highly recommend and hope that you can experience as it seeks to humanize those who endured this terror, while hardly naming or acknowledging its violent perpetrator. Too often, media focuses on the gunman, but this film takes a look at the heroes of this day, and honors those who were lost.
Tower is currently playing at the Alamo Drafthouse and various festivals and select screenings around the country.