An inventive exercise in artistic journalism, Tower revisits the 1966 University of Texas mass shooting by dramatizing the memories of those who were there via rotoscoping animation (in which live action is layered with animated effects). The result lends visual poetry to oral history, and thereby offers a particular grace to the survivors of that awful day.
Central among them is Claire Wilson, a pregnant student who was one of the first of 49 people shot by Charles Whitman as he hid perched in a tower on campus. Crossing the quad between classes with her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, they were both suddenly struck down. Eckman died instantly, while she was left lying on the hot pavement while those hiding nearby could only watch, afraid to help for fear of being shot themselves.
What’s distinctive about Tower, which was directed by Keith Maitland, is that it not only details Claire’s recollection of that moment, but also listens as she reminisces about her love for Tom at the time, which the animation (done by Minnow Mountain) evisions with dreamy, kaleidoscopic imagery. (Violett Beane and Cole Bee Wilson “play” Claire and Tom in these scenes.) Other moments work similarly, humanizing not only the victims, but also the responding news reporters and police officers. Early on there is a scene of one cop, Houston McCoy, casually skipping rocks beneath a bridge before the chaos begins, and the image is so peacefully gorgeous it deserves to be framed.
That’s one of the rare, quiet moments in the documentary. Tower is mostly a wrenching watch, especially given the repeated pops of gunfire on the soundtrack—jolting reminders of Whitman’s agonizing reign of terror. The movie details how he was eventually stopped, but then rightly returns to the stories of the victims, and how the experience has affected them to the present day. One of the survivors—Artly Snuff, who was one of the brave onlookers who eventually ran out in the open to retrieve Claire—laments near the end that there is no memorial on campus to remember those who were injured and killed. I can’t imagine any piece of sculpture being a more fitting memorial than Tower.