On Aug. 1, 1966, an ex-Marine named Charles Whitman positioned himself at the top of the University of Texas tower and rained sniper fire on unsuspecting citizens, killing 16 and wounding dozens. But Keith Maitland’s extraordinary documentary about that terrifying hour and a half, “Tower,” isn’t about the killer.
Through a bracingly innovative combination of animation, archival footage, and first-hand eyewitness interviews, it stays on the ground with victims and bystanders, the scared and the brave (and the both), conjuring up a white-knuckle-suspenseful, deeply moving account of what it feels like to have just another day turn into a nightmare one can never entirely shake.
Maitland’s film arrives at a time when mass shootings are so prevalent in society that they have their own media cycle: 24-hour reporting, political handwringing, in-depth TV pieces, and eventually feature-length documentaries. (Case in point: Kim A. Snyder’s sober, reflective “Newtown” also arrives this week.) But the general populace knows little about what happened in Austin 50 years ago beyond Whitman’s starring role in the first U.S. school massacre, and therein lies the real surprise of “Tower,” and the emotional space that Maitland makes completely his own as a filmmaker interested in how minds and hearts react to crisis.
Most of the movie is animated recreation with interspersed archival snippets, narrated with survivor testimony, and played by younger, rotoscoped actors. We get to know a handful of people, including the first people shot under that blistering Texas sun: 18-year-old, eight-months-pregnant student Claire Wilson, crossing the South Mall with her boyfriend Tom, and the two police officers who got the first reports of gunfire, and eventually made their way up the university tower to stop Whitman.
Amidst the chaos, we get affecting insight into paralyzing fear, but also powerful displays of selfless courage. A university bookstore manager named Allen Crum tends to a wounded boy, then asks to be deputized by the officers on their way to the observation deck. As Claire lies on the hot pavement, sure her unborn baby is dead, she senses the end, until a complete stranger named Rita runs into the line of fire to lie with her and talk to her. Elsewhere, a 17-year-old student named John Fox runs to the campus mistakenly assuming it’s an air rifle prank, and when confronted with the reality, finds it in him to risk his own life to save someone else’s.
The tension Maitland creates with his action-packed reenactment is remarkable. It all plays like the horror show it clearly was, with steady, deafening rifle shots pockmarking the soundtrack to terrifying effect, and grainy newsreel augmenting the suspense. The animation, meanwhile, serves multiple purposes, offering dreamlike touches to heighten key emotions (including a touching, colorful reverie when Claire tells us who Tom was to her) but also, thanks to the rotoscoping, always keeping us in the moment as the minutes unfold.
The events of that day are only part of the film’s overall impact. Maitland’s boldest move comes halfway through, during Claire’s darkest moment under that withering noonday sun, when he pulls back the curtain on his animation-archival collage technique to introduce the real faces of his interviewees, and the weight of a history that’s never entirely past. (The way Maitland does it won’t be spoiled here; suffice it to say it packs a real emotional wallop.) Seeing the lined, older faces of the survivors after having gotten to “know” their younger animated selves becomes its own beautifully metaphoric manifestation of the act of recalling, of understanding your place in a terrible event.
We see one of the officers, Houston McCoy, captured on videotape before he died, express a preoccupying regret at not making a difference sooner — perhaps a felled colleague might not have been killed. John Fox describes the cold space in his back he still senses, the place where he expected to feel a bullet. Claire, who becomes this movie’s beating heart, looks at the camera and forgives Whitman, yet confesses to dreaming about the baby she lost. The cumulative power of these expressions of grief, guilt and compassion is, to put it mildly, overwhelming.
The movie is called “Tower,” but that’s not merely a name for the place from which one man wreaked so much havoc. It’s also what stands out in any landscape, the emotion that surges to the forefront of any given experience, and maybe, eventually, the time in one’s life that’s that much taller, that much more imposing than the others. Though Maitland avoids making any explicitly political statements about gun violence, he doesn’t need to when his human-sized depiction of what these terrified men and women go through, and how it affected them, is stronger than any easily juiced outrage from a standard-issue advocacy doc.
“Tower” is art, first and foremost, a piece about adrenaline, bravery, grief and memory that stands as one of the year’s crowning achievements in emotional, illuminative storytelling.