The history of mass shootings is often lost in the deluge of headlines about present-day tragedies. However, the events at Austin’s University of Texas Tower in 1966 — when 25-year-old engineering student Charles Whitman opened fire on the campus square with a sniper rifle, killing 14 people and injuring scores more — continues to haunt the city where it took place. The first instance of such an attack at a college campus, Whitman’s murders generated international media attention, inspired the plot of Peter Bogdonavich’s 1968 debut “Targets” and became forever intertwined with the image of the campus’ tallest building. Director Keith Maitland’s strikingly original “Tower” recreates the drama with a mixture of animation and contemporary interviews, imbuing the catastrophe with renewed immediacy.
The fast-paced narrative owes much to the extraordinary recollections of numerous survivors. Maitland crafts an absorbing account of the circumstances surrounding the massacre, setting aside the analysis of Whitman’s motives (he also killed his wife and mother) for others to dissect. Instead, the movie derives its intrigue from some 10 interviews, pairing voiceover narration with an engaging rotoscoped animation style that recreates their testimonies.
Gradually, the animated faces give way to real ones, as “Tower” transitions to the present day. Maitland’s layered approach suggests “Waltz With Bashir” by way of Errol Morris, with its testimonies elevated by expressionistic effects. Though its final act lacks the sharp focus of the moments leading up to it, “Tower” is a fascinating blend of suspense and journalistic inquiry.
Of course, much of the material’s unsettling qualities emerge from the events themselves. No testimony stands out more than the one from Claire Wilson, who was pregnant when she was shot in the middle of the square and spent an hour trapped on the hot cement next to her dead boyfriend (meanwhile, dozens of spectators — and news cameras — looked on). Her terrifying ordeal offers a close-up look the claustrophobic horror experienced by the pedestrians caught in Whitman’s crosshairs.
But that’s just one of numerous subplots as Maitland cuts across multiple perspectives to construct a masterful ensemble piece. The director (who also made the music doc “A Song for You: The Austin City Limits Story,” another SXSW 2016 premiere) reportedly spent a decade putting “Tower” together, and the hard work shows in the way each frightening strand dovetails into the next. The experiences of shotgun-toting Air Force veteran Allen Crum is especially thrilling to watch: Leaving his shop to help an injured child, he ultimately gets deputized by an officer and joins the slow climb to the top of the tower. Their gradual advance to Whitman’s position rivals any great western showdown.
Meanwhile, a fascinating media narrative plays out down below, where a radio broadcaster draws thrill-seeking crowds and gun-toting vigilantes. Another figure recalls watching the events unfold from a window, too afraid to help the injured victims lying at the center of the square. With its frantic editing strategy and constantly involving imagery, “Tower” never stops moving, as it cycles between animation and archival footage from nearly every foot of the square. While the documentary images ground the events in reality, the animation punctuates certain critical moments: When bullets hit their mark, the screen turns bright red, as bodies fall to the ground in white silhouette. As it zips between vivid colors and opposing grey tones, “Tower” captures the shifting tenor of each moment.
Eventually, the movie makes its way to the natural climax of the drama, when officer Houston McCoy pulled the trigger many times over and took the shooter down. But then it shifts focus to the reverberations of the present day, when it becomes a very different story. Maitland’s on shakier ground when “Tower” zips through fleeting connections to contemporary mass shootings, conversations about gun-carrying laws on campus, and the reunions of various survivors. These are all compelling details, but can’t possibly hold up when compared to the bracing set of sequences leading up to them, and drag on far too long to serve merely as an epilogue. The unfocused finale stymies an otherwise richly engaging portrait.
However, the imagery of the survivors 50 years on provides a fascinating contrast with the present. As one of them notes, no psychologists swarmed in to help them cope with their trauma in the shooting’s aftermath. As a result, the terror continues to live with them, and “Tower” masterfully recreates it. They live through those definitive moments much in the same way the movie does. Concluding with one more image from the past, as two would-be victims once again walk through the square, the movie ends with the lingering sensation that everyone’s a potential target.
“Tower” premiered at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.