Editor’s Note: Tower will open in limited theatrical release on October 12, 2016.
It was almost 100 degrees that August morning in 1966 when Charles Whitman, an engineering student and former Marine, wheeled a rented dolly onto the University of Texas campus at Austin. Clad in overalls and with a veritable arsenal hidden inside a zipped bag, those who encountered him as they went to and from the university’s clock tower observation deck assumed he was a maintenance man, including a local couple who carefully walked around a large puddle of what they assumed was varnish.
It was blood, pooling from the hidden body of a campus secretary that Whitman had just bludgeoned to death.
Tower, Keith Maitland’s documentary on the University of Texas massacre, erases Whitman entirely, leaving him faceless and unidentified throughout. He may have been responsible for wounding 34 people and killing 15, but the film refuses to acknowledge him at all, instead focusing on the drama on the ground, on the survivors and witnesses to what would become known as the first mass school shooting in modern American history.
Archival photos, radio transmissions, television reports and interview snippets fill out the details and ensure Tower’s place as an important historical record, but it’s the words of the witnesses and survivors that will make your blood run cold.
Based on Pamela Colloff’s oral history of the shootings, “96 Minutes,” Tower utilizes actors portraying those who were on campus, then rotoscopes them into both recreated scenes and archival footage, most of which was shot by local Austin television stations. Featured interviewees are Claire Wilson, who lost her unborn baby in the attack, reporter Neal Spelce, student John Fox, and others; several of the actual survivors also appear in modern day interviews intercut with animated scenes.
Archival photos, radio transmissions, television reports and interview snippets fill out the details and ensure Tower’s place as an important historical record, but it’s the words of the witnesses and survivors that will make your blood run cold. There are tales of heroism and bravery, camaraderie and selflessness, but the film never lets you forget that these uplifting stories could not have happened except in the shadow of an unthinkable tragedy.
The loss of life is the obvious tragedy, of course; less obvious at the time were the psychological consequences. Those who lived through the shootings were expected to maintain the Texas version of a stiff upper lip, no one in 1966 really able to comprehend the enormity of what had happened. And though our first reaction to that might be to say that no one could ever be expected to comprehend such a thing, our country has, in fact, learned to not only comprehend but accept this and more, much more, with little more than a sigh.
There are tales of heroism and bravery, camaraderie and selflessness, but the film never lets you forget that these uplifting stories could not have happened except in the shadow of an unthinkable tragedy.
Tower doesn’t make much of a political stand, but it also doesn’t avoid a few uncomfortable facts, like the fact that the private citizens who showed up with rifles, hoping to take the sniper down, almost shot police officers instead. There’s also a telling archival moment with a Vietnam veteran and student who braved bullets in an effort to rescue victims, his rote military response to the reporter’s questions a fascinating juxtaposition to the killer’s similar training.
Terrific pacing and expert curation of interviews recreate the urgency without resorting to exaggeration, and the victim’s memories, while all greatly moving, avoid maudlin sentiment. Tower is anything but comprehensive, but that’s hardly the fault of the film. As it always is with tragedies like this, there were too many victims, and too many stories to tell.
Through a combination of archival footage and rotoscope animation, Tower documents the 1966 massacre on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. Terrific pacing and expert curation of interviews recreates the urgency and horror, but without resorting to exaggeration or maudlin sentiment.