This remarkable documentary vividly and tenderly tells the true story of the United States’ first mass murder in a public space, when, on Aug. 1, 1966, an unhinged architecture student and expert marksman named Charles Whitman opened fire from the top of the University of Texas Tower in Austin and rained down terror for 96 minutes.
The animation is the first genius touch of the film: The real people who survived the massacre narrate the story as they appeared at the time, sometimes interposed with footage of themselves from contemporary interviews. The medium allows for imaginative touches, like the trippy flower-power sequence as Claire Wilson James recounts how she fell in love with her boyfriend, who died in the massacre, or a pulsating effect to dramatize how she felt the sensation of melting as she lay on the hot concrete nearly dying herself.
There are moments of extraordinary courage, as when an artist named Rita Starpattern lay down beside Wilson James, pretending to be dead while the campus remained under siege, so she could talk to the wounded woman and keep her from slipping into unconsciousness; when Artley Fox, a high school student, ran into the line of fire to rescue her; and when Officer Ray Ramirez, who was supposed to be working traffic, ascended the tower and fatally shot the sniper.
If all the film did was recount the events of the day, it would be impressive. That the last 30 minutes of Tower deal with the consequences for the survivors and the phenomenon of subsequent mass shootings that have unspooled with numbing regularity in the past 20 years is nothing short of extraordinary. Fortunately, director Keith Maitland mostly resists the temptation to use the story as a platform for polemic, instead leaving viewers with the collective humanity of the survivors and heroes, while letting Whitman fade into obscurity.
Tower screens on Saturday at 4:30 p.m., April 10 at 1:30 p.m. and April 11 at 1:30 p.m. at A/perture 2.
— Jordan Green