On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman stabbed his mother and wife to death then headed to the observation deck of the University of Texas tower in Austin with a Remington 700 hunting rifle, several other weapons, and over 700 rounds of ammunition. The “Texas Tower Sniper” took fifteen lives and wounded thirty on that sweltering Austin afternoon before he was shot dead by police. The former marine, whose life had unraveled recently following a court martial and several other personal failings, had confessed in diaries and letters to unwelcome thoughts and violent fantasies, leading him to suspect there was something wrong with his brain, yet he was helpless (in his words) to prevent the horrors he would unleash.

An autopsy will later discover a “pecan-sized” tumor close to Whitman’s amygdala, but his use of drugs, a derailed life plan, his tumultuous upbringing, and even the fact that he was once struck by lightning in a phone booth in Guantanamo Bay, have all been mooted as possible causes for the rampage. Whitman’s actions remain a mystery, as they seem to have been to Whitman himself, who wrote in his suicide note that he hoped an autopsy would reveal the source of his dark thoughts, and “[m]aybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type.”

Solving this mystery is not, however, the aim of Tower, an innovative documentary about Whitman’s killing spree, notable for its extensive use of animation as a narrative technique. This review begins with details about Whitman because all discussion of the shooter, his history, and his motives are curiously all-but omitted in this film. Instead, Tower attempts to reconstruct the events of that day, and their resonance, through a dramaturgical animated re-enactment of the massacre (in what feels like real-time), paired with first-hand accounts of victims and witnesses, and what little live-footage survives.

An attack like this touches more lives than one movie can possibly document, and Tower pragmatically focuses on a few individuals: a pregnant woman who was shot but survived, one of the incredibly brave bystanders who exposed themselves to the still-active shooter to rescue the wounded, a young boy shot from his bicycle, and a cop who led the assault on Whitman. Through their (animated) eyes, we witness the massacre unfold; by their (live-action) contemporary reflections, we come to understand a little about how survivors are irrevocably shaped by their experiences. This decision is necessarily restrictive, sacrificing breadth of analysis for highly selective depth, but Tower provides a unique vision that contributes a great deal to the wider project of understanding this tragedy.

The bulk of Tower recreates the tale of a banal summer’s day twisted into confusion and terror. The sheer number of witnesses to this very public massacre mean that director Keith Maitland had a wealth of details and accounts at his disposal, and the viewer gains unique insights into how the tragedy unfolded from multiple perspectives. This technique is highly successful in portraying the pacing and sheer confusion of the day’s events. Among the many things that struck me was the amount of time it took for people to understand what was actually happening — passersby curiously regard felled victims as though they have eccentrically opted to sunbathe; the steady report of gunfire is dismissed as firecrackers or simply ignored; and all the time the tower looms in the background of each frame, small puffs of smoke rising from the rifle shots, the steady “crack” of gunfire punctuating the surreal action like a metronome.

As realization dawns and the panicked seek cover, the film breaks off into several dramatic narratives as the wounded lie exposed, their would-be rescuers gather their courage, police rally and plan to storm the building, and civilian gun-owners take pot-shots at the tower. Here, the movie becomes somewhat loose as contemporary reflections of the survivors are weaved into the manifold animated storylines. There are touching vignettes, such as the unwounded girl who plays dead in the line of fire in order to comfort a downed woman. But the film pursues some of these threads at the expense of giving us more information about other pressing issues: Why was the authorities’ response so slow? What prompted a  pilot to buzz the tower in a small plane? Who were some of the other people who got shot and wounded? The film’s decision to concentrate on certain threads is understandable, but occasionally frustrating to the inquiring mind.

The movie demonstrates that animation is a potentially very powerful tool in the enactment of events for which very little footage exists. But with topics as intimate and momentous as this, the question of style becomes critical: animation’s strengths can easily become liabilities when depicting actual events under the banner of realism, and the specters of caricature, sensationalism, and sanitization encroach — albeit unintentionally — from time to time in this film. There is something of a surreal disconnect between the clean-line animation style, which resembles the evacuation instructions of an in-flight safety booklet, and the live-action footage of the victims as they recount their experiences many years later. The film has been praised for its meticulous recreation of period attire and mannerisms, which is absolutely warranted, but the immaculate presentation somewhat distracts from the terror at times, reducing messy reality to inappropriately bland textures, in my opinion. Some subtle uses of animation — such as the blurring effects when a rescuer loses his glasses, or the fading consciousness of a downed pedestrian — are very effective and respectfully inserted. But nothing the animators offer is as compelling as the few moments of live footage of frantic attempts to drag the wounded out of the line of fire, with a rescuer’s sweat-slicked glasses tumbling from his face as he pounds down a flight of steps holding the legs of a shot woman.

While the documentary stands on its own, if you aren’t (as I wasn’t) very familiar with the details of the shooting — particularly those of the shooter himself — I’d recommend reading up on the case before you watch the documentary. The Behind the Tower project by graduate students and a History professor at the U of Texas is an excellent resource in this regard. Among the many things I learned from this film is that, other than a plaque, there was no memorial to Whitman’s victims at the University of Texas — something which seems to have been addressed shortly after the release of this documentary.  For that, and the highly original vision of Tower, the filmmakers deserve a lot of credit.

Dan’s Rating: 7 Stars (7 / 10)

Director: Keith Maitland
Starring (voices): Violett Beane, Louie Arnette, Blair Jackson
Release Date: 13 March 2016
Runtime: 1 hr. 36 mins
MPAA Rating: TV-14