Tower

(Keith Maitland, 2016)

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On August 1, 1966, a sniper opened fire from the University of Texas Tower in Austin, shooting 49 people. The harrowing and emotional film Tower is the first factual documentary made about this massacre, and takes the unusual step of putting the perpetrator aside and letting survivors tell their stories.

This approach shouldn't be as unusual as it is. With mass shootings now an almost routine fixture of American life, the media is fiercely criticized for placing too much focus on the shooters. These killers are nearly household names (or would be, if there weren't so many to remember) and some argue that media glorification actually incentivizes new, would-be shooters into acting. In the realm of entertainment, the true crime genre has found peak popularity in recent years with the podcast Serial and documentaries like Making a Murderer and The Jinx. These, too, focus on the accused and the crime itself over the victims.

Maybe we put killers in the foreground because this tends to absolve us of the exhausting duties of empathy. It's not that we won't empathize with victims and survivors – it's that we can't empathize with psychopaths, and this is what makes them especially fascinating and terrifying. As an audience presumably seeking to be entertained, we'd rather be thrilled by the inexplicable than absorb the devastation of survivors.

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Tower breaks through this audience barrier with bold formal choices. In Tower, the survivors' stories are told through talking heads and dramatic reconstruction – but the interviews and reconstructions are portrayed by actors. In other words, when we see survivor Claire Wilson being interviewed on screen, we see a young woman of a similar age as Claire in 1966, acting out Claire's actual interview responses, as well as acting as her stand-in during reenactments. On top of this, most of the film is rendered in rotoscoping, an animation technique which traces over traditionally-shot film footage (Richard Linklater's Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly also used this technique).

The use of actors and animation, by definition, distances the audience from the reality of the story being told. But somehow this distance makes Tower more immediate and absorbing than a straightforward documentary on this subject could ever be. Real-life footage, especially of challenging subject matter, can feel confrontational and cause an audience to throw their guard up. The trick of Tower's actors and animation is, perhaps along with being slightly distanced, the audience is also less guarded and ready to empathize in a way that we sometimes aren't when watching real life.

When Tower mixes in actual historic footage and photographs captured that day in 1966, the result is a heady and harrowing blend of grounded, real-life tragedy and something resembling action movie thrills. As the film progresses and we become more involved with the human toll of the shootings, the sound of gunfire takes on a distressing vividness.

Perhaps as it should be, Tower is personal, not political. Tower is challenging and extremely moving, but the movie doesn't try too hard to draw connections between the Tower massacre – often described as America's first mass shooting – and the present day. Social and political implications are left for the viewer to sort out. The killer himself is mentioned only briefly at the end, and not in the light you might expect. Tower lets Walter Cronkite deliver the most prescient commentary, in footage taken from his broadcast coverage of the shooting:

The horror of these, the sick among us, must be found in the horror of our hyper civilization, a strange pandering to violence, a disrespect for life fostered in part by governments which, in pursuit of the doctrine of self-defense, teach their youth to kill and to maim, a society in which the most popular newspaper cartoon strips, television programs and movies are those that can invent new means of perpetrating bodily harm, a people who somehow can remain silent while their own civilization seems to crumble under the force of the caveman's philosophy that might makes right.”