Fifty years go by awfully fast once you’re on the downside of the timeline. But Tower, which reconstructs the events and humanizes the victims, survivors, and witnesses to Charles Whitman’s shooting spree from atop the University of Texas Tower on Aug. 1, 1966, brings it all back home with a stunningly powerful immediacy.
Director Keith Maitland’s film is one of the finest documentaries ever made, and it’s also one of the most unusual. Maitland shot the film – based in large part on Pamela Colloff’s riveting Texas Monthly piece “96 Minutes” – using actors and animator Craig Staggs, with his Minnow Mountain team, rotoscoped the footage à la Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. Then he combined the animation with archival live television, police radio chatter, and the memories of those who were there. The end result is nothing short of a heartbreaking masterpiece of cinema. And, of course, it subtly echoes our current era, in which mass school shootings have become so frequent as to be almost unsurprising when they occur. That’s a whole other heartbreak in and of itself.
The Tower shootings have been brought to the screen before, most notably with a young Kurt Russell as the sniper in the 1975 television movie The Deadly Tower. Targets, Peter Bogdanovich’s first film, used Whitman as a template for a no-frills, all-thrills Boris Karloff drive-in melodrama. But here Maitland has consciously chosen to never even mention Whitman by name. Tower is all about the act, not the actor. The sheer sweaty momentum of this film carries you along and places you right there beside the dead, the injured, the chaos, confusion, and heroism, of which there is plenty.
I rarely, if ever, use the cliche “a must-see movie,” but in this case it’s entirely apropos. Go see Tower, and then think long and hard about how little ground our society has gained in the intervening half-century when it comes to guns in the streets and spent bullet casings on the ground.
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