“I guess this is it…I guess this is the end.”
On August 1, 1966, 25-year-old Charles Whitman murdered his wife and mother before climbing to the top of of a tower at the University of Texas at Austin with a personal arsenal. There, perched high above the college campus, he began to open fire on the people below. Over a 95-minute period, Whitman killed 14 people and wounded 32 before he himself was gunned down by the police. It was one of the first mass shootings in America, and, as well all know painfully well, it would not be the last.
The events surrounding those 95-minutes of terror are the inspiration for Keith Maitland’s remarkable documentary Tower. Maitland’s film isn’t a True Crime doc — Whitman is an afterthought here; his name isn’t even mentioned till the very end. Instead, Maitland strives to recreate the events of the day through rotoscoped animation (similar to what Richard Linklater did with Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly). Rather than settle into the standard talking-head documentary format, Maitland has young actors playing the victims, survivors and police officers involved in the event telling the story as if it were happening in real-time.
What emerges is a chilling portrait of senseless, destructive violence striking down unsuspecting youths cut down, running for cover or struggling to grasp what was happening. There are also portraits of heroism and bravery — one particularly striking sequence involves a stranger who lays down on the hot, searing asphalt to stay with a woman who lies shot and slowly bleeding to death.
Maitland’s unique approach to the material allows Tower a power and grace that would be lacking from a more traditional documentary. The rotoscoped animation blends real people and locations into an almost fantastical setting, enabling the filmmaker to recreate the day’s events without resorting to ineffective Unsolved Mysteries-style reenactments.
What truly makes Tower so impactful is how terribly relevant it is today. The events that happened that day at University of Texas at Austin may not have been the very first mass shooting in American history, but it was clearly the beginning of something that would stretch on through history with no seeming end in sight. Near the end of Tower, a stark image of Whitman as a child is presented: the boy stands holding up two guns that are bigger than he is. Tower concludes with a broadcast about events by Walter Cronkite. As Cronkite reflects on the tragic events there’s a warning in voice — the warning that if we do not address the cause and effect of such events, we may see more and more of these mass shootings in years to come. 50 years later, his words still ring depressingly true.