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In Kim A. Snyder’s documentary Newtown, she refuses to go over the details of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Instead, she turns her camera on the community in the aftermath of the massacre, following many of the town’s citizens through the process of grieving and rebuilding their lives.
Keith Maitland’s TOWER, on the other hand, is very much about the details of a school shooting, an understandable choice when considering the historical context. Where Sandy Hook took place not even four years ago, we’re nearly 50 years removed from the killings at the University of Texas. That’s not to weigh one tragedy’s sadness against the other. It’s just that Sandy Hook is still fresh and raw in our minds, and given the devastatingly young age of its victims, I wonder if a documentary about the shooting itself would even be watchable, let alone necessary. As a Connecticut state trooper accurately states about the crime scene in Newtown, “I don’t think anyone needs to know specifically what we saw.”
But in the case of August 1st, 1966 — when an engineering student at UT ascended the campus bell tower and shot 46 people (killing 16) — Maitland peels back the events of the day layer by layer. Starting in the dining hall with the first two victims, the director doesn’t let up until the gunman has been taken down by police officer Houston McCoy, with assistance from Officer Ramiro Martinez and deputized civilian Allen Crum.
While that might sound like an exploitative take on an awful, awful event, Maitland treats the storytelling with eleganc, and positions the bulk of TOWER as an animated reenactment, using actors to depict that fateful day, and then rotoscoping their actions with animation from Minnow Mountain. As a framing device, he stitches the shooting together with talking-head interviews (also rotoscoped), the performers playing the real-life people reflecting on the event.
This unique blend of docudrama, action movie, and cartoon immerses the viewer in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a more traditional film. For instance, the stylized animation — reminiscent of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, both directed by Maitland’s Texas brethren Richard Linklater — amplifies the emotional jolt that occurs when violence strikes on an otherwise beautiful day. Minnow Mountain renders the campus landscape in bright tones — the yellow sunlight that pours through the window during an afternoon chess game; the green foliage drifting by while a boy goes on his paper route — only to strip them away whenever someone approaches the tower. As McCoy and the other officers close in on the school, the color disappears, as if sucked out of the animation cells by a vacuum, now portraying the oncoming violence in stark black and white.
Maitland then uses the limited palette to bring back the color during key moments of salvation. As the shooter’s first victim, the eight-months-pregnant Claire Wilson, lies bleeding out on the concrete next to her dead boyfriend, a fellow student plays dead next to her, keeping Claire conscious through conversation until someone can rescue her. It’s a simple gesture that helped keep Claire alive, and because the woman’s hair is painted in brilliant orange-red, she stands out among the bleakness as a savior, a small beacon of hope in a time of carnage.
As the shooting builds to its climax when McCoy, Martinez, and Crum converge on the observation deck where the shooter is perched, Maitland begins to shift the aesthetic of the film, switching out the animated talking heads with live-action footage of the real-life survivors. Eventually, he more or less does away with the animation altogether, in favor of a more conventional retrospective about the shooting and where several of the people are today.
At first, this was somewhat of a letdown as an audience member, a move from avant-garde storytelling to a more cut-and-dry take on a historical event. But as Maitland stated in a post-screening Q&A, he wanted to use the animation as a flashy (albeit hard-hitting) tool to draw in a young audience who otherwise wouldn’t be familiar with or interested in the infamous bit of Texas history. To his credit, it works, especially for a non-Texan like myself who was aware of the events in a general sense, but not the stranger-than-fiction heroism of the police, students, reporters, and everyday citizens who all played a part in restoring order to Austin. As much as the moviegoer in you might prefer the animation to be carried to the very end, Maitland reminds us that, style aside,TOWER is a story that’s all too real.