In her Texas Monthly oral history of the August 1966 sniper assault waged by a Texas engineering student named Charles Whitman from the University of Texas Tower on the unsuspecting populace below, Pamela Collof detailed how the school generally refused to acknowledge that terrible event in some strange hope that the event’s memory would merely evaporate. But the memory did not evaporate from the minds of those who survived it, and it is those who survived it who finally, deservedly get the floor in Keith Maitland’s pulverizing documentary “Tower.” Maitland, however, is not content with simply lining up survivors on screen like so many talking heads; no, he both looks back and lives through the event, a brilliant melding of past and present that manages this tricky balancing act through animation.
Maitland principally tells the story through rotoscoping whereby he and his effects team layered animation over live action and archival footage. Actual actors were tasked with playing survivors of that day and artists then drew over the images of these actors, giving them a heightened sensation, not unlike Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life.” If it sounds crass given the weight of an event in which 13 people were killed and 36 more wounded, the end result is anything but, evincing a sensation of how memories can exist at both a heightened and piercing pitch.
Maitland uses the actual words of survivors to describe their ordeal, but filters this testimony through these rotoscoped re-creations, creating an onscreen immediacy that also allows for the thoughtful consideration afforded by the distance from the event itself. You see this incredible blending most acutely in the case of Claire Wilson, the first shooting victim, 18 years old and 8 months pregnant, whose evocative recollections of being shot as like stepping on a “live wire” and bleeding out as akin to “melting” are breathed to poignant, terrifying life by Maitland’s images.
“Tower” begins with Wilson and her boyfriend Tom Eckman going to put an extra nickel in the parking meter as the shooting erupts, plunging them and us directly into the crosshairs, just like it did with them and everyone else on campus, with next to no description of what’s happening or why, forcing them and us to grapple with it in real time. Not that Maitland refuses to pause for an occasional reminiscence within one, like of Eckman, who was the first person to die in Whitman’s rampage, who Claire remembers in a tearful, wistful tribute set to pop music of the era.
It’s a cruel reminder of the arbitrariness of the universe, how the lives of Eckman and Claire’s baby were lost even as she survived, and yet, at the same time, “Tower” explicates the power that each person in the moment to make a decision that could alter the course of someone else’s existence. Like Rita, the woman who laid down beside Wilson to give her company and reassurance, and who does not speak herself on camera, having passed away in 1996, which, sad as her passing is, enhances this sensation of her as an earthly angel. She is contrasted with a woman watching from a dorm, who admits cowardice in her unwillingness to go out and help, a striking confession that can’t help but cut to the heart of each viewer as a means to make you wonder “What would I do?”
Maitland allows others to gradually emerge, almost like an ensemble in a more intense Richard Linklater film, like the two heroic policemen who happened on the scene and happened to band together to stop Whitman, along with a store manager from across the street, and the pair of friends who bravely streak into the line of fire to pull Wilson from it. It’s an eerie, unsettling juxtaposition to consider, the callous isolation of the shooter so high up and these strangers who banded together down below.
That is primarily where Whitman stays, up above, out of sight, only seen in recurring archival footage of the plumes of gun smoke that emerged from where he was sprawled on the tower, even if he remains a firm presence throughout on account of the shots that continually ring out on the soundtrack and never get any easier to stomach. His motivation is of no concern in “Tower.” How could it be? For those 96 minutes who in his sight line would have been concerned with “Why Is He Doing This?” All that mattered then was “How Do I Survive It?” This also, however, is part and parcel to the problem of “Tower’s” conclusion, which does attempt on some level to ask What Does It All Mean? It has no satisfying answer.
If anything, “Tower” dreamily allows itself to wonder what could have been and if all this had never existed, ending on a shot that seems to flash back to the beginning, with a rotoscoped Tom and Claire walking and talking and giggling in the shadow of a peaceful Tower, an optimistic alternate vision of past/present/future that, for all the terror chronicled, left me with an “If only” smile.