Movie Review: Tower (2016)
My immediate thought afterwards was: Couldn't you do this with almost any big event? It doesn’t have to be recent, right? It could be 19th century, 17th century, B.C. All you need is ... eyewitness accounts? Right? Then you hire actors to read the accounts and relive the event; then you animate. And mix and match.
This is a compliment, by the way. This is a testament to how much the partly animated docudrama “Tower,” directed by Keith Maitland, moved me. I want to see it done with the rest of our history.
On Monday, August 1, 1966, after killing his wife and mother-in-law, former U.S. Marine Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the tower on the University of Texas campus in Austin, with its 360-degree observation platform, and on a sky-blue day began shooting and killing whomever he saw. I was 3. I think I first became aware of the event from a photo in LIFE Magazine, the end-of-the-decade issue, “The ‘60s: Decade of Tumult and Change,” from December 1969. The cover of that issue included, among other ’60s icons, Snoopy and the Beatles, which might be why it attracted my attention in the first place. The Texas tower photo inside, in a section on sudden, inexplicable violence in America, seemed an outlier then. Not part of the civil right movement and its aftermath; not part of the Vietnam War and its protests; not an assassination of a political leader. Just a crazy guy with a gun on a campus. An outlier.
“Tower” puts you at ground level. It doesn’t cut to Whitman on the tower; it doesn’t give you his story or try to explain him. In a sense, it doesn’t give a shit about him. It cares about what it was like to be there that day.
We begin with Claire Wilson (Violett Beane), who sitting at a cafeteria with her boyfriend Tom, talking with friends, when they get up to feed the meter. When she stands, oh, she’s pregnant. (Wait, did she say boyfriend? Isn’t this 1966?) They walk outside holding hands, talking, but what we hear is her narration. It's animated by the same Austin team that did Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly.” We also cut to talking head shots of her, also animated. She’s young in these, and her voice sounds young, too. For a time I puzzled over this. So was she interviewed back then? I didn’t get right away that this was an actress playing Claire in the 2010s rather than Claire in 1966.
Then she feels like she’s stepped on a live wire and collapses on the ground. Tom reaches for her. Then he’s hit, too.
We meet others:
- A Hispanic kid delivering newspapers with his cousin on his bicycle.
- Two police officers called onto the scene.
- A radio newsman reporting from his car.
- A manager of a local co-op, Allen Crum, who goes outside to help the Hispanic kid, realizes he can’t go back into the co-op (he’ll be in the line of sight), so keeps moving forward.
We get some newsreel footage/TV news reports of the day, but most of it is animated. A few times, Maitland superimposes animation over real footage. That doesn’t quite work for me. Everything else does.
I never truly understood from how far away Whitman was picking off people. The Hispanic kid wasn’t even on campus, really. Nor did I get the 360-degree vantage point. He turned a whole swath of Austin into his firing range. As Crum says: If you could see the tower, he could see you.
The rifle shots are unrelenting; they just keep going, but a number of people who were drawn toward the Tower rather than away from it. This is Texas, so good ol’ boys show up with their own rifles to try to take out the sniper from below. The guys who make it into the building are Crum and the two police officers, Ramiro Martinez and Houston McCoy. No one is trying to be a hero. Far from it. But they become that. It’s the messy heroics of life rather than the clean heroism of Hollywood. Even the guy with the movie-ready name Houston McCoy: He was skipping rocks when it all began; when he first got onto campus, he assumed the worst: the Black Panthers. Or so he says in the narration. It’s an odd confession—black people accused once more of white crimes—but I also thought: In August ’66? Isn’t that early? It was. The Panthers weren’t founded for another three months. But black nationalists were already making news, so he probably means them. “Panthers” is shorthand.
There’s a jolt, and a joy, about two-thirds of the way through, when Maitland cuts from the animated, youthful talking head footage to the real witnesses to the event, now old, never as handsome as the actors portraying them in the animation, the weight of the tragedy still on them.
Harbinger, not outlier
“Tower” goes on for a few minutes too long, as if Maitland didn’t want to let go of a project he began 10 years ago when he first read Pamela Colloff’s oral history, “96 Minutes,” in Texas Monthly. Plus the connection between Whitman and today’s campus killings—Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook—doesn’t resonate like it should. It should hit us like a bitchslap. In that LIFE magazine, the other types of senseless violence depicted there—civil rights, war protest, political assassination—which seemed the norm, have diminished or disappeared; Whitman’s has grown. He wasn’t an outlier but a harbinger. He was a trendsetter.
In a way, we feel this early in the doc from a moment of inclusion. “There’s a guy on top of the tower,” the radio newman tells his colleagues. “He’s shooting.” Then he adds, for clarification, “Shooting at people.” No one needs to add that now.