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Nearly fifty years ago, a gunman rode the elevator to the twenty-seventh floor of the University of Texas Tower and opened fire. TOWER, an animated and action-packed documentary, shares the untold story of that day - when the worst in one man brought out the best in so many others.
In a Q&A, director Keith Maitland revealed that he filmed locations at the University of Texas with an iPhone in order to obtain the footage animators used for the rotoscoped backgrounds, while most of the actors featured in the re-enactments were filmed in his backyard in front of a greenscreen. See more »
I remember looking at the Tower, of course, a lot. And from the Main Mall you can see there's a biblical line from the Bible. "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." I've thought about it. One of the truths I learned... Is that there are monsters that walk among us. There are people out there that think unthinkable thoughts and then do unthinkable things.
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A critic took the words out of my mouth: essential viewing.
TOWER is an important movie for all the right reasons. It is an artistic feast; a cinematic marvel that recreates a tragedy with a simple beauty without falling into the tropes of documentary filmmaking. This is not a documentary, rather it's more of a non-fiction retelling that casts actors to read lines in place of the real people. It recounts a school shooting that happened long before memories of Columbine - on a sprawling Texas campus where a sniper took a town hostage and murdered a total of 17 victims (including an unborn child) and shooting a total of 49 people. In a time when mass shootings have become a standard scroll on the nightly news, this was a new kind of crime. It only seems fitting that the movie uses a new form of craft to tell it.
It was the summer of 1966 on the sweltering campus of the University of Texas at Austin. Summer courses were just beginning, and the college town surrounding the buildings were bustling with excited youth and students. It was just after noon. From nowhere, people recall hearing "pops" and suddenly the air was filled with targeted bullets, first striking down a pregnant woman and her boyfriend in the stone plaza outside the central clock tower. Soon after, a boy on his bike was shot several blocks away. Chaos ensued.
On a day when the top news was going to be little more than the heat, here was suddenly a national emergency that gripped the country. A local news director hopped in his car and broadcast the scene from a portable radio. His voice was heard all over America. From the clock tower, the rumors that a sniper was preying on those below with no regard and no sense. Why don't more people talk about this tragedy today?
The film is designed to be a documentary (although I would argue it doesn't fall into that specific genre for a variety of reasons) with talking heads of students and police officers explaining what happened. We know they are actors, and their accounts strike us as surprisingly modern in expression and tone. The rotoscoped faces keep the past at a safe distance, and it's almost easy for the audience to distance themselves from the horror that actually happened here. Through black and white recreations and grainy archival footage, the film crafts a landscape of southern comfort and familiarity with those living nearby.
There is a moment like a bombshell midway through the film, when we suddenly cut from the illustrated actor to an actual aged woman, continuing her story without a moment's hesitation. This woman (now in her 60's or so) is one of the survivors: the woman who lost her unborn child at the hand of the gunman. It's a revelation - splicing the animation with the real, creating a moment that is all the more impactful by bridging that historical and visual gap. Now we understand that these actors are not reading from a script... They are telling the actual words by those who survived it.
There are beautiful moments that are beyond words - like when a red-headed woman rushed to the aid of this pregnant woman even though she remained completely vulnerable to the shooter. They begin a conversation to keep their minds off the terror and carnage. Another moment when a couple of students act heroically in order to save victims from the slow death that awaited them. They run out in the face of danger and carry victims to safety. This was a time that separated the heroes amongst us, and there were unbelievably brave people that were caught in the midst of it all.
By the end, "Tower" became a movie that commented on the string of recent shootings, the prevalence of violence in our culture, our unwillingness to stop it... There have been several movies made about the ideas of school violence and mass shootings. I recently re-watched "Elephant" which is a great Gus Van Sant film that recreates a Columbine-like shooting and yet does nothing to answer the simple question of "why?" "Tower" is great not because deals with the same question, rather it adds to it: why can't we stop this from happening?
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