‘Tower’ DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: A Profound, Creative Look at a Dark Day in US History

Image via Kino Lorber

Sometimes directors are forced to be creative and innovative, and that can lead to wonderful moments in cinematic history. While perhaps not necessarily an instant classic, Tower uses its beautiful techniques and poignant narrative to inspire the viewer, all the while telling the story of a very dark day in the history of the United States.

The film depicts a sweltering summer day in 1966 Austin, Texas, when a gunman climbed to the top of a University of Texas clock tower and randomly shot passers-by, ultimately killing 16 and injuring 31. To many, this is considered to be the first major school shooting in the United States, something that we may have become unfortunately too familiar with nowadays. However, this film is not about the man who perpetrated this act of terror, barely mentioning the man’s name until the end of the film. Instead, director Keith Maitland deep dives into the heroic acts of strangers helping strangers, pushing the heart of the film and all the people involved.

Unable to recreate anything on a grand scale due to budgetary constraints, Maitland uses narration and actors to describe and portray what went down on this fateful day. Actors and events are animated over (interpolated rotoscoping techniques made famous in works such as Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, or A-ha’s “Take on Me” music video), creating a sense of a different reality and subverting what some might consider to be solely a “kids” art-form. Blending news clips and very real audio from the time with these animations, Maitland manages to capture the panic and terror of the situation, all while honouring the brave people who were there that day.

Image via Kino Lorber

We hear from students, teachers, police and journalists, talking through their experiences during the shooting. Some walk through their bravery and heroics; some openly admit their fearfulness and cowardice. However, the real emotional punch comes when Maitland switches the animation off and we meet the real victims and witnesses of the shooting. From there, you discover the documentary’s true purpose: Giving voices to people involved who have never been heard.

Once the facts are laid out, Tower opens up to reflections from the real people that were there, shedding light on why they wanted to relive that day and how their thoughts have moulded since the incident. It’s a truly profound retrospective. Some reflect on the violent culture that has engulfed their country, while others talk about dealing with their own regrets from their actions (or lack thereof) on the day. Perhaps some of the more hard-hitting contemplations come from Claire Wilson James, a pregnant freshman at the time who was the first person shot in the rampage and who lay on the hot pavement next to her dead boyfriend. Not letting this tragedy ruin her life, she forgives the man who almost ended it; “I can’t hate him, in spite of the incredible damage that he’s done– I forgive him, yes. How could I not forgive? I’ve been forgiven so much.”

The awful tragedy heard from younger voices, followed by the more seasoned and impactful voices of the victims and witnesses, furthers the realism and power of the story being told, and the various techniques Maitland employees beautifully amplify it all. The riveting entertainment factor is matched by its heart and creativity, delivering something different for what is surely a difficult subject to portray well. Tower is a must watch for fans of the documentary genre.