Originally published on October 12, 2016. Tower is now available on U.S. Netflix Instant streaming.
Overview: Combining archival footage and rotoscope animation, Keith Maitland’s TOWER is a bold documentary on the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas at Austin. Kino Lorber; 2016; Not Rated; 82 minutes.
A National Sickness: Orlando. San Bernardino. Sandy Hook. Aurora. Virginia Tech. Columbine. These names resonant deep within the American psyche, each synonymous with one of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings. These attacks may not be unique among First World Countries, but they are unmatched in their frequency. Other countries look at our record of inaction and legislative indifference towards these attacks with thinly veiled horror. And they should. With our unparalleled access to firearms, a culture which idolizes success and mercilessly ostracizes outsiders and losers, and lapsing access to mental health programs, mass shootings are a specifically American sickness. And indeed, if these are a national sickness, then many believe Patient Zero to be the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas at Austin. On the morning of August 1, Charles Whitman—a mentally disturbed, honorably discharged US Marine with a undiagnosed brain tumor affecting his amygdala—climbed the tower at the campus’ main building and killed 14 people: 3 within the building itself, 11 more on the grounds below.
But Keith Mailand’s documentary Tower isn’t interested in the killer. It doesn’t explore his backstory or his possible motivations. He’s only mentioned by name once. Tower is equally uninterested in the Austin Shooting’s impact on the American gun control debate and its notoriety as the first modern mass shooting. There’s a perfunctory montage of news footage of mass shootings at the very end, but it feels like an afterthought.
Recreation, Not Reflection: Tower concerns itself with bringing the horrible events of the Austin shooting to life via survivor interviews and rotoscope animation. Maitland meticulously constructs the film to play out like a thriller, introducing each of its survivors one by one as they try and comprehend what is going on from their worm’s-eye perspective. Take Claire Wilson, an 8-month pregnant student, and her boyfriend Thomas Eckman. They were among the first to be shot. Thomas was killed instantly, but Claire was left sprawled out on the plaza, the Texas heat baking her flesh as her baby miscarried. As the minutes drag by into hours, she lays paralyzed in fear and pain, helplessly watching the growing crowd of bystanders too terrified of the shooter to risk exposing themselves.
Among the others are a teenage paperboy who cycled too close to the campus, a bespectacled student who went from terrified bystander to hero by charging the plaza in full view of the shooter to rescue victims, a handful of police officers, and a local reporter whose on-site coverage was radioed into homes across the continent. Maitland alternates between archival footage of the shootings and animated recreations reminiscent of the BBC reconstructions of lost Doctor Who serials. I suspect many will find this technique glib or disrespectful. But I found that, much like with Charles Guggenheim’s The Johnstown Flood (1989), deliberately manipulating historical sources to bring them to life created a sense of dread and empathy lacking in most documentaries.
But Maitland’s coup de grâce comes in his handling of the interviews. He had age-appropriate actors and actresses recite actual interviews held with the survivors. It’s absolutely uncanny seeing an 18-year old actress stand in for Clair Wilson. But later in the film when Maitland alternates between the hired performers and the actual interviewees, it lands with a devastating power.
Overall: Tower attempts to establish an emotional connection with its audience most documentaries attempt to avoid. It is to Maitland’s credit that it manages to hit the mark without becoming maudlin or melodramatic. The shooting is brought to life without being trivialized, the survivors venerated and mourned without being reduced to mechanical talking heads.
Featured Image: Kino Lorber