Tower is one of the most innovative documentaries in recent memory by blending rotoscope animation with live-action footage to emotional results.
Many times with documentaries, especially those covering historical events, it feels like you are being taught a piece of the past that stays in the past and belongs in the past. However, with Tower, Keith Maitland, instead reconstructs the day using rotoscope animation and drops us into the world that consumes you before crashing you back into reality with a single, incredible cut. It’s not until that “big reveal” that Tower truly comes to life. The reveal is a punch in the gut that brings all the emotions flooding in all at once. It sets the tragedy in a time and a place. It’s simply one of the most incredible moments of cinema in 2016 and Tower is simply one of the best movies of the year.
On August 1, 1966, a sniper climbed to the top of the University of Texas tower and terrorized the campus for 96 minutes. Unfolding in what is essentially real time, Tower follows the victims, the bystanders, and the community during and after what would become the first mass shooting at a school. Director Keith Maitland made the decision early on to use rotoscoping rather than live reenactments — this is the act of animating over live footage. While the style is off-putting at first, it’s an important decision and one that gives life to Tower. In particular, the decision allows the “talking head” interviews to be told in present tense and in the way that the victims and bystanders looked in 1966. The immersive design and incredible editing by Austin Reedy — he beautifully intercuts the interviews with archival footage and the animation — grabs your attention and senses and never lets you go for the entire running.
Some of the people that we follow include Claire James (then Claire Wilson), who is one of the first people shot. A lot of Tower‘s emotional moments come from her experience lying on the ground in 100-degree heat while people watch on in horror. We also follow two police officers. The first we’re introduced to is Houston McCoy. While his story may not seem as remarkable as the others in the movie, it comes together in an incredibly emotional revelation towards the end of the movie. In fact, the way Maitland and Reedy were able to shape the movie into being true human journeys is remarkable.
As the minutes tick by and more and more people are injured and killed, the difference between the animation and the archival footage slip away. You are simply watching this terrifying act of violence. Throughout the entire film, we hear gun shots both in the distance and as if they were whizzing past our heads. Each shot sends a chill down your spine. You feel like you are on the campus.
The big reveal that I mentioned earlier comes at the halfway point of the movie. Up until this point, we are immersed in the animation and archival footage of the film. Maitland adamantly sets our point of view in the present as if the event is unfolding before our eyes. However, in a quick cut, he brings us into reality. While we hear Claire talking about what it felt like to be lying there and thinking that this was the end of her life, Maitland cuts to Claire today. Obviously, she has aged in the 50 years since the shooting. She looks straight into the camera and says, “I guess this is the end.” The emotional weight of that statement juxtaposed against this sudden switch from animation to live action is palpable but so necessary for the film to work.
With all documentaries, the most important part is the commentary that the film makes. Tower isn’t an intentionally political film. Maitland didn’t use it as a call for gun control, overtly. But what it does is remind us how all too common school shootings have become and how desensitized we, as a society, have become to their occurrence. One of the subjects Neal Spelce, a newsman covering the shooting live, at one point says “what in the world has happened to my world.” Before August 1, 1966, the term “school shooting” wasn’t in the collective vocabulary we share. As Brian put after we watched the film, “the one thing people take away from tragedy is a relationship forged out of trauma and pain. In those moments, having such a raw connection to someone means so much. Like Claire and Rita or McCoy and Martinez.”
Tower is an incredibly important film that doesn’t feel self-important despite its extremely stylized take on the shooting. Its style is integral to its emotional core. It will surprise you in a way that no film in years has been able to surprise. The film’s humanity is palpable. It’s something that we don’t get to say about documentaries as often. Maitland is able to take a horrible event and find the moments that make us human. He finds the moments of courage and cowardice, of compassion and cruelty. More than anything, he stresses that trauma isn’t something to internalize. And while the name of the killer is mentioned only a few times in the film, I’m going to leave you with a word on him from the great Walter Cronkite: “the crimes of Charles Joseph Whitman are society’s crimes.”