There has never been another documentary quite like Keith Maitland’s Tower, which details the 1966 shooting at the University of Texas at Austin that left 16 people dead and dozens more wounded. Using animation and eye-witness testimonies, coupled with archival footage and audio recordings, the film manages to offer an unflinching look at a horrifying moment in U.S. history that feels incredibly tangible despite looking like a cartoon.
August 1, 1966 was a 100-degree day in the city of Austin, and through the stories told in Tower it sounds like it could have been any other day of the calendar year. Everyone was going about their lives as they typically would until one man, a 25-year-old engineering student at the university and a former Marine named Charles Whitman, opened fired from the clock tower in the center of the University of Texas campus. Whitman had no previous criminal record or reported mental health problems, but that morning he had killed both his wife and mother before taking to the tower with no specific target in mind. The first to fall was a pregnant woman, Claire, who was almost immediately followed by her boyfriend, and it is through her first-hand account that the film begins.
As Tower reconstructs the events of that fateful day, Maitland changes perspective over and over again to create a more fully-realized and detailed world. Claire’s experience lying under the hot sun while bleeding and worrying for the safety of her unborn baby serves as the central narrative, but it is complemented by the experiences of other victims, as well as bystanders and members of law enforcement. Each thread adds a little more understanding to how things unfolded, and to his credit, Maitland does a good job of giving everyone enough space to speak their truth in full. While some eventually recovered from the events of that day, many did not, and some of those who walked away without any physical pain have lived with regret over having not done more.
The animation in Tower is rotoscoped, meaning laid over real actors who recreated the events of the day. These actors also narrate the story using words taken directly from transcripts or interviews with the real people conducted by Maitland. A similar approach was famously used in Richard Linklater’s films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, but here it is presented without the random hallucinations in the latter that prevented fellow Texan Linklater’s film from staying grounded. Tower manages to feel utterly authentic despite its presentation because of the detail it adds to the story being told. The perspective it allows goes beyond anything the footage from that day could hope to show, and it provides Maitland with an added tool for storytelling that further emphasizes the emotional intensity of the moment.
The actual survivors who are still alive today do have some screen time in the film’s later moments, and Maitland seamlessly blends them into the rest of the film by showing a transition from their younger, cartoon selves into the people they are today.
Tower does not mention Whitman by name until after the story has been recounted in full. By not identifying him until after his crimes are told in graphic detail the film is able to remain focused on the victims and their struggles rather than inadvertently glorifying the actions of a murderer. It’s also crucial to getting the story right, if only because the police and public had no real understanding of the motivations behind the crime until long after Whitman was deceased. Even then, after a coroner ruled it was a possible an undiagnosed brain tumor had caused him to act irrationally, many still debate the legitimacy of the diagnosis. Maitland could have easily dedicated 20 or 30 minutes to deconstructing Whitman’s actions, but by choosing to refrain from such exploration he is able to tell a far more emotionally-driven story that conveys empathy where it’s needed most.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Tower is how the chaos of that day could not have been anticipated. The world of today may be more advanced than it was 60 years ago, but we never know what is going to happen when we step outside our front door or what choices we will have to make. You could be gunned down by a person with no history of wrongdoing or you could be put in a position to help someone who has become the victim of a random act of violence. You could be the only person who is capable of determining whether or not someone gets the help they need to survive, or you may need to risk your own life to help others. Anything can happen and you never really know how you will react until you’re in the moment. Even then, even if you have perfect clarity of what needs to be done, you have no idea how your actions will shape the future.
Someone once said that it’s dangerous business walking out your front door, and Tower is a reminder of how true that can be. Any day could be our last, just like any day could alter the rest of our lives. Tower reminds us to cherish life while we have it, and to seek ways to prevent events like those at the University of Texas at Austin, or Sandy Hook Elementary, or Columbine, or Newtown from happening ever again.