'Tower': SXSW Review

TOWER - H 2016
Courtesy of SXSW
A gripping combination of oral history and stylized reenactment.

Fifty years later, Keith Maitland talks to survivors of the University of Texas massacre.

Ten years ago, Texas Monthly's Pamela Colloff published 96 Minutes, a transfixing oral history of Charles Whitman's 1966 attack on the University of Texas campus. Filmmaker Keith Maitland expands on that work in Tower, adding some interviewees and employing Scanner Darkly-style animation to bring that terrible day to life. What might sound like an odd gimmick serves the film surprisingly well, especially given Maitland's pairing of actual voices with those of actors, and helps viewers raised in an age of mass shootings to identify with the bafflement felt by Austinites, by all Americans, at the time. Luke Wilson and Meredith Vieira add their names to Colloff's as executive producers here, likely raising the profile of a film that, sadly, may not sound like news to moviegoers.

Here, the actual survivors are replaced by young actors, whose reenactments are then rotoscoped via software as in the work of animator Bob Sabiston. (Though Sabiston's proprietary software was reportedly not used, the look is exactly the same.) Often whole scenes are animated; elsewhere, live-action footage of Austin from the period serves as backdrop for animated people and cars. In voiceover, the actors read transcripts of survivors' memories: how the hot August day started, what nothing-special was going on when Whitman's first shots were fired.

We get to know both people at the center of the action — like Claire James, who was pregnant when she and her boyfriend Tom Eckman were gunned down on the South Mall — and those who spent much of the time away from the violence: Policeman Houston McCoy, who would eventually help stop Whitman, initially fled the scene and was haunted for decades by the feeling he could have done more.

Maitland's storytelling eases us into the horror, echoing the experience of witnesses who at first found it hard to digest what was going on. But soon enough we are planted firmly within firing distance of that iconic observation deck, hiding behind embankments to watch what becomes a free-for-all. From houses all around campus, gun-toting civilians show up to shoot fruitlessly at the man on the tower.

As the melee comes to feel like it may never end, the film executes a masterful narrative shift that will produce instant lumps in many viewers' throats. This gear-shift, coupled with an increased use of TV news footage, effectively places us even more firmly in the action — just in time to watch two daring men make their way into the tower and out onto the deck.

The film doesn't stop at the end of this story. Nearly its last half-hour is epilogue, showing what some survivors did with the rest of their lives and tying this event to the infuriating history of mass killings that followed. There's nothing here a viewer won't want to know, but following immediately after such an intense experience, much of it dampens the doc's impact. Tower would stand up fine without it, and an expanded version of this epilogue would make an excellent DVD featurette.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Production company: Go-Valley
Director: Keith Maitland
Producers: Megan Gilbride, Susan Thomson
producers: Luke Wilson, Meredith Vieira, Steve Eckelman, Amy Rapp, Pamela Colloff
Directors of photography: Keith Maitland, Sarah Wilson
Editors: Austin Reedy
Composer: Osei Essed
Sales: John Sloss

Not rated, 98 minutes