SXSW: “Tower” delivers gripping account of the UT Tower shooting

Charles Liu

Before Sandy Hook, before Aurora, before Virginia Tech, before Columbine – there was The University of Texas. On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman ascended the UT tower with an arsenal of guns and killed 14 people and wounded 32 more. His massacre scarred the Austin community and haunts its survivors to this day.

With “Tower,” director Keith Maitland delivers a gripping account of that day from the viewpoints of students, cops, reporters and other observers as they scramble for cover, rescue the injured or fight back against the unseen shooter. He cleverly combines archive footage of the events with lengthy, rotoscope-animated reenactments starring young actors as real people, giving the film an engrossing aesthetic used in other pictures such as “A Scanner Darkly” and removing the cheesiness prevalent in documentary reenactments.

One of the film’s main focuses is Claire Wilson, then an 8-month pregnant anthropology student, who was Whitman’s first victim. Though she survived the ordeal, her child did not, and Wilson spent much of the massacre lying down on the scalding concrete because she’d fallen in a place too open for others to save her.  

Police officers Houston McCoy and Ramiro Martinez and civilian Allen Crum, the men who eventually stopped Whitman, also feature prominently. Their part of the tale is harrowing, as the cops haphazardly attempt to respond to a crime they’ve never been trained for.

UT students, faculty and alumni who watch “Tower” will find familiar landmarks turned into parts of a battleground. Crum runs past the Flawn Academic Center toward the Tower. The mall in front of the Main Building becomes a death trap, and the removed Jefferson Davis statue shields students from incoming fire. The Tower itself is no longer a proud Longhorn symbol – it’s an ominous, remote fortress.

The eyewitness stories and the animation successfully fuse together, creating a uniquely entrancing experience. “Tower” paints vivid portraits of Whitman’s victims so it really hits home that real people suffered that day. It forces us to confront the terrible cost of gun violence, and as the film segues into modern day during its last act, it argues that the violence prevalent in popular media may be responsible for molding impressionable children into killers.

Interviews with the real survivors reveal they are still haunted by Whitman’s actions. They think about what they should’ve or could’ve done to help the wounded, what they did wrong, what all that death around them meant about people and the world. Some of these intimate moments are heartbreaking and tragic, while others are uplifting and moving.

The real-life Wilson appears later on at the Texas State Capitol, testifying against the UT campus carry law, which will go into effect August 1, 2016 – the 50th anniversary of the shootings. When “Tower” highlights this fact before its closing credits, it closes with a morbid sense that perhaps we have not learned.

Maitland wisely avoids discussing Whitman too much, an act of rebellion against a culture which obsesses over the perpetrators of inexplicable violence instead of their heroes and victims. Whitman has been a subject of quite a few documentaries, films and books now – everything that needed to be said about him has been said. The survivors of the shooting get their due in “Tower” – Maitland has honored them well.

Running Time: 96 minutes
Rating: N/A
Score: 5/5 stars