'Tower' review: Gripping, intense doc recounts America's first school shooting
This is not simply a dry, informative retelling of a tragic day in American history. The intense documentary "Tower" (which screened during the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival) leverages powerful first-hand accounts and rotoscoped animation to truly convey the terror and uncertainty of a campus paralyzed by America's first school shooting.
In short: This documentary chronicles the 1966 massacre at the University of Texas in near real-time, following a number of people whose lives were changed. (Watch the trailer)
Director Keith Maitland has created a time machine that takes the audience back to a different point in American history - and he pulls this off with a very simple tool: animation. "Tower" is first and foremost a documentary - various talking head interviews from a diverse group of people who survived the shooting tell the story in their own words. "Tower" animates the events as they unfold, allowing audiences to see younger versions of the interview subjects. This stylistic choice absolutely allows the audience to connect easier with the subjects.
It seems almost quaint to go back to a time when school shootings were not commonplace. "Tower" vividly recreates a world that was wholly unprepared for the premeditated act of terrorism that is a school shooting. The police don't immediately expect the worst when there are reports of shots fired on campus. Even people on campus are initially mildly amused by the notion that someone brought an air rifle to campus - because surely no one would bring an actual rifle to school and start shooting at people.
Allowing the subjects to recount the day in their own words and animating the shooting effectively throws the audience into the uncharted chaos of the day. This gives "Tower" the intense and harrowing energy of a dramatic action film. But more importantly, "Tower" punctuates the shock and terror everyone should feel when anyone mentions any mass shooting anywhere - be it any one of several dozen that will happen this year or the first one in Austin.
Anyone looking for reasons or explanations about Charles Whitman should look elsewhere. Rather than psychoanalyzing the shooter or guessing what drove him to commit such a heinous crime, "Tower" focuses on the students, police and victims. Maitland deserves every acclaim for not aggrandizing a killer and for instead choosing to tell a much more compelling story - that of the heroes and victims of the day.
Final verdict: This is not merely a documentary about an event - this is a gripping story about people. "Tower" is a thoughtful and intense film that gives a voice to the survivors.
"Tower" screened during the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival. This film has a running time of 82 minutes and is not yet rated.