“He’s up in the tower!”
Keith Maitland’s affecting, documentary-ish film The Tower recounts the fraught two hours before, during and after America’s first significant mass shooting on a school campus. At midday, on Aug. 1, 1966, at the University of Texas at Austin, a sniper set up on the observation deck of the clock tower, 28 stories above the campus and its open plazas. For 96 minutes, confusion, panic and terror ensued, as the gunman shot 46 people, killing 14.
The story is re-told by seven people present that day: pregnant student Claire Wilson; paper boy Aleck Hernandez; rookie patrolman Houston McCoy; off-duty officer Ramiro Martinez; campus bookstore manager Allen Crum (later deputized when he accompanied the cops to the top of the tower); freshman John Fox; and newsman Neal Spelce, who arrives on the scene in a station wagon equipped with an FM transmitter and winds up giving a horrified nation a real-time accounting.
Maitland takes a page from some current thoughts about how media covers such news, and focuses on the event and its effect on victims rather than on the killer. (He’s not even identified until the film’s last moments; he was Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old engineering student who had also killed his family earlier that day.)
The Tower reconstructs the event with actors (rotoscoped into animation), while intercutting archival footage. The first-person accounts, many untold until now, retain the event’s shock; the recreated animated scenes feel remarkably intimate and immediate. What will strike modern viewers is the excruciatingly slow pace of the response, whether from cops, campus authorities, emergency medical or even just members of the public caught up in it. That’s no criticism — recounted here are some incredible stories of sacrifice and heroism — but this happened before SWAT teams, text alerts and our common familiarity with mass-shooting events.
The real punch of this film comes in its final reel, in which Maitland offers a reckoning of historical events with today, including contemporary live-action interviews with some of the people featured earlier as “cartoons.” It’s an extraordinarily powerful transformation from past to present.
Also at the end, Maitland includes a brief reel of news footage from now bold-faced shorthand signifiers — Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook — that illustrates how such “unthinkable” acts of random gun violence on campuses have become all too commonplace. That grim coda is intercut with a televised editorial statement from news anchor Walter Cronkite, following the Austin shooting. He calls out the American propensity for violence, and the country’s unwillingness to confront its effects, and concludes that “it seems likely that Charles Joseph Whitman’s crime was society’s crime.” Familiar words from more than 50 years ago.