Words can’t do justice to the singular power of Keith Maitland’s documentary Tower, a you-are-there reconstruction of the harrowing 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas at Austin, where 25-year-old former Marine and engineering student Charles Whitman planted himself in the school’s clock tower and shot 49 people, killing 16. Through the recollections of witnesses and victims, the film simultaneously builds a present-tense narrative while portraying the terrifying resilience of memory and trauma.
Did I mention it’s animated? Maitland has re-created the event with actors and archival footage, and then rotoscoped it. He has also taken interviews with survivors and witnesses, restaged them with actors playing these people’s younger selves, and then rotoscoped those. Technically speaking, most of what’s onscreen has been staged and animated, even though it’s all essentially true. Could that call into question Tower’s status as a “real” documentary? Who knows — we live in interesting times, with the putative boundary between narrative and nonfiction coming ever closer to being wiped away entirely. More importantly, who cares about labels when a film is this devastating?
The search for the present tense in nonfiction filmmaking — the effort to bring us into a historical moment and let a story unfold as if it’s happening before our eyes — can result in bracing work, as in films like Brett Morgen’s Chicago 10 (which, not coincidentally, is also animated) and Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn. But it can also lead to a sort of cinematic myopia in which context and history get lost in favor of mere immediacy. Tower walks this fine line, with Maitland conjuring the horror of that day through the use of those personal recollections and then laying bare his film’s artifice to reflect on the past.
Tower opens with a radio station reporter driving through town warning everyone to stay away from the university area because a sniper is “firing at will.” That immediately establishes the tense mood. We then follow pregnant eighteen-year-old Claire Wilson and her boyfriend, Tom, as they leave a meeting with student activists, when they’re both shot down on the plaza in front of the tower. Not far from them, teenage paperboy Aleck Hernandez and his young cousin are riding a bike, delivering newspapers, when they’re hit. Meanwhile, a news director at a local radio station is milling about, wondering what to cover on this quiet Monday, when he hears of the shots and heads out to the university in a station wagon.
The animation depicting these and other experiences is effective — even beautiful — but not manipulative. Lying out in the open, the wounded Claire is unreachable; the sniper can take out anyone who approaches her. But even as we see her gasping for help, the film doesn’t indulge in depicting her agony. When Aleck is in an ambulance, thinking about how he may never see his parents again, we don’t see him writhing in pain. In fact, his appearance is almost calm. That may not be entirely realistic; these scenes fall more in the realm of documentary reenactments than full-on dramatizations. But the rotoscope animation also lends them the odd quality of a dream or memory — impermanent yet persistent. I suspect Maitland is also holding back a bit here because he hopes we in the audience will fill the gaps with our own empathy and imagination. By keeping us at a slight distance, he pulls us in.
That’s not to say that the director has neglected narrative elements. Quite the contrary. He gives us telling details — both ghastly and playful — as well as stirring moments of heroism. A passing man, not quite grasping the gravity of the situation, dismissively tells the wounded Claire and her now-dead boyfriend to get up and go to class — even as she’s feeling her unborn child slump, lifeless, inside her. Bookstore manager Allen Crum, who would go on to help take Whitman down, gives the sniper the finger and almost gets shot. Later, just as Claire is about to fade out and give up, her bleeding body baking on the hot summer concrete, incoming freshman John “Artly” Fox, who has just had his own bout with nausea and queasiness, musters up sudden battlefield courage and runs out to drag her to safety. Up at the tower’s observation deck, right before they go after Whitman, Officer Ray Martinez deputizes Crum as they dodge bullets not from the sniper, but from the dozens of vigilantes on the ground who are firing back.
But perhaps Tower‘s most moving moments come in its final act, as Maitland cuts to the latter-day reflections of these survivors — slowly slipping away from the animated, younger faces to actual footage of these people as they are today (or, in a couple of cases, as they were not long ago). It’s a stylized touch, but not a frivolous one, for it is in these scenes that we fully understand the ongoing trauma of the event. John Fox describes the cold spot the size of a grape that he can still feel in his back “where I expected the bullet to hit.” The men who did eventually bring down the shooter — Crum, Martinez, and rookie patrolman Houston McCoy — tearfully wonder whether they should have gone up the tower sooner. Claire Wilson talks of the joy of eventually adopting a son, but also admits to still having dreams in which she’s reunited with the child she lost.
Tower is ultimately about more than one event, of course. The Texas killings were the first mass school shooting in U.S. history, and Maitland has a broader point to make, tracing a through-line from Austin to Columbine to Virginia Tech to Sandy Hook and beyond. The film closes out with footage of these later tragedies, which in some ways feels redundant — if only because the rest of the movie does such a masterful job of creating a dialogue between the present and the past. But that’s a minor quibble. You may not see a more emotionally shattering film this year.
Directed by Keith Maitland
Opens October 12, Film Forum