On August 1 1966, Charles Whitman, a student at the University of Texas, barricaded himself in the tower of the main building on campus and opened fire on unsuspecting civilians. Armed with a sniper rifle, among other weapon, Whitman killed 16 people and wounded 36 others before he was taken out by police officers. It was the first mass school shooting in America’s history, but sadly would not be the last. Director Keith Maitland takes audiences back to that horrific day with his documentary Tower.
Blending rotoscope animation and archival footage, Tower takes a rather bold approach to the way its revisits history. While some documentarians would spend ample time deconstructing Whitman’s mindset and motives, Maitland chooses to highlight the heroes who found the courage, and risked their lives in the process, to help those in need. Relying on witness testimonies and survivor stories, the film paints a vibrant picture of the terror and sense of panic in the air that day.
The use of rotoscope animation adds a unique layer to the film. Though animation has become a key tool for conveying reenactment tool in documentaries, it is a risky thing to craft an entire film around. It can become a distraction that takes audiences away from the true substance of the film. Penny Lane’s Nuts! was able to successfully avoid this by finding the delicate balance of style and substance, and now Maitland does it as well. Instead of distancing us from the event, the animation draws us in closer. It brings the events to life in an unforgettable way.
By focusing on the heroes, instead of the shooter, the film finds hope and inspiration in a dark period of American history. It reminds audiences that the human spirit can overcome even the most terrifying moments.