The impulse to make sense of tragedy has given rise to any number of films, from Kim A. Snyder’s “Newtown” and Tim Sutton’s “Dark Night” to the forthcoming Hollywood blockbuster “Patriots Day” — all made in response to recent episodes of mass violence in America. For the most part, the intent of such a near-immediate reckoning is to be raw and immediate rather than definitive. But “Tower,” a formally and thematically ambitious documentary that revisits the 1966 sniper shootings at the U. of Texas at Austin, powerfully channels the terror and confusion of that terrible August day while also achieving the weight and authority that can only come with time and distance. A gripping dramatic reconstruction, a tribute to the heroes and the fallen, and inevitably an expression of nostalgia for the days when a mass shooting still had the power to shock, Keith Maitland’s film weaves rotoscopic animation, archival footage and present-day interviews into a uniquely cinematic memorial that will be in demand from programmers and buyers as the 50th anniversary of the shootings approaches.
With little preamble, “Tower” plunges directly into the events of the morning of Aug. 1, 1966, when a heavily armed shooter made his way to the top of the school’s clock tower and fired at students and other Austinites on the ground below, killing 14 people and wounding 32 others before he was shot dead by police. The siege lasted a little more than an hour and a half, and while this 98-minute film doesn’t exactly reconstruct the events in real time, Maitland has clearly seized on the cinematic potential of a horror that played out at length, minute by agonizing minute. Filtered through the first-person testimonies of seven witnesses and survivors (played by a cast of young actors), and mediated further through mostly black-and-white rotoscoped images, his vivid dramatic re-enactment seeks to place viewers immediately in the thick of the action.
The shattering abruptness of the first attack, and the unrelenting brutality with which the violence continues, may make viewers queasy in ways both appropriate and troubling. It can be hard to tell if you’re recoiling from the violence or from the manner in which it’s been stylized — the intermittent use of ’50s and ’60s rock tunes in the background, or the screen’s habit of turning red whenever a bullet finds its target. And then there is the steady, almost metronomic succession of gunshots, each report landing on the soundtrack with nerve-shattering force, making it impossible for the viewer to experience any sort of respite — much like the witnesses who were forced to wait it out, ducking for cover behind buildings and under trees, seeking refuge from the sweltering heat as well as from the killer’s crosshairs.
The specific stories we hear include those of the first shooting victim, Claire Wilson, who lost her unborn baby and her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, and lay bleeding under the sun for more than an hour; and Aleck Hernandez Jr., who was on his paper delivery route when he was shot off his bicycle. We hear, too, from bystanders who were swept into the chaos and performed crucial acts of heroism and service: Neal Spelce, the news director who drove around campus in his FM-transmitter-equipped station wagon, broadcasting updates to listeners nationwide; John “Artly Snuff” Fox, who, along with his friend James Love, bravely carried Wilson to safety; and Allen Crum, the university bookstore manager who entered the tower and joined a unit of Austin police officers — two of whom, Ramiro “Ray” Martinez and Houston McCoy, vividly describe the fear and the determination that seized them as they burst onto the tower’s observation deck and took the sniper down.
As skillfully assembled by editor Austin Reedy (who makes excellent use of astonishing black-and-white archival footage from that morning), the narrative barrels forward with tremendous, gut-clutching momentum. But the film remarkably conveys not only the panic but also the sheer bewilderment that gripped those on the ground as the events were unfolding — a confusion that would be unthinkable now, given how sadly commonplace school shootings and other acts of mass murder have become. The day is thus framed as yet another key moment in the loss of America’s innocence, and “Tower” can’t help but encourage a certain yearning for a precious, long-ago time when the words “active shooter” meant nothing and SWAT teams didn’t exist.
With the reconstruction finished, the movie shifts into a more straightforward but no less stirring talking-heads format as it catches up with many of its real-life subjects in the present day, with particularly moving focus on the reflections of Wilson (now Claire Wilson James), Fox and Hernandez. (Not all the parties were interviewed firsthand, as some died before the film began production — such as McCoy, who is represented here by his daughter Monika, also a police officer.) Many of them note that they lacked the ability or the opportunity to speak openly about their experiences until now, owing to a combo of survivors’ guilt and the more tamped-down customs of an earlier era; grief counseling wasn’t quite the go-to that it is today.
The selective focus of the narrative inevitably elides the stories of many victims and survivors, but the thrust of the film is deeply human — attuned to small, vital acts of heroic sacrifice, and principled in its refusal to drag the shooter, Charles Whitman, into the spotlight (he isn’t even identified until late in the film). The film’s reflections become explicit as Maitland introduces footage from the school shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, the movie-theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., and other incidents that have since numbed us to the spectacle of public violence. The film ends with the sobering note that a 50th-anniversary memorial will be unveiled on Aug. 1, 2016 — the same day that a law will take effect allowing concealed handguns to be carried on the UT-Austin campus (which Wilson James spoke out against before a Senate committee). Call it political if you must, but it’s the sort of observation that lets the tragedies of the past resonate with fresh, devastating clarity in the present.