Even a routine documentary about the 1966 shooting from the tower at the University of Texas Austin — in which 46 people were shot and 14 died — would be intrinsically worth watching. The event is considered the first mass shooting in modern American history.
But Keith Maitland’s Tower is anything but routine. Instead of cobbling together talking heads with archival footage and calling it quits, Maitland hired actors to re-create what happened that day from the viewpoint of various victims. But he didn’t stop there either. He used the footage as the basis for lifelike animation, called rotoscoping, and a meticulous reconstruction of what happened.
This sounds like it could be an exploitative or cheesy approach, but it brings the terror of those 90 minutes on a sizzling 100-degree August day to vivid life. After all, this was a time when large-scale shootings weren’t yet part of the mainstream cultural vocabulary, so the sheer horror of what gunman Charles Whitman did that day had no precedent. Tower taps into that sense of surprise and shock.
And the victims, and heroes, are many: pregnant Claire Wilson (Violett Beane), sprawled on the oven-hot sidewalk unable to move; Rita Starpattern (Josephine McAdam), courageous in her efforts to keep Claire conscious and alive; Houston McCoy (Blair Jackson) and Ramiro Martinez (Louie Arnette), two of the officers who try to take Whitman down; and many others.
The movie is dotted with archival footage and, as it goes on, the audience does get to see the real-life images of those involved. The dead are represented with photos, but several of those still living expound on the events of that deadly day.
The one person who is not represented is Whitman himself. That’s a wise choice, as this is not his story but the stories of those he ruthlessly gunned down, those who may have gotten lost in the haze of old headlines.
Tower, a huge hit on the festival circuit with grand jury honors from South by Southwest and the Dallas International Film Festival, is a sobering, moving and remarkable work. It’s history made real.
Exclusive: Alamo Drafthouse Cedars, Dallas; opens Dec. 2 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
☆☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Keith Maitland
Cast: Violett Beane, Louie Arnette, Blair Jackson
Running time: 81 min.