Directed by Keith Maitland.
Featuring Claire Wilson James, Violett Beane, Neal Spelce, Monty Muir, John Fox and Ramiro Martinez. 82 mins.
In Texas, in the sixties, two lone white men with rifles would re-shape the world. In Dallas, in 1963, the insistence that the answer in the envelope to the JFK Cluedo Edition was Lee Harvey Oswald/ Book Depository/ candlestick rather than, say, Woody Harrelson's dad/ the Grassy Knoll/ the lead piping was the moment the Conspiracy Theory really got its grips into the western psyche and started its assension to become the masses instinctive interpretation of reality. Three years later, in Austin, former marine Charles Whitman, packed up his inadequacies in his old kit bag, climbed to the top of the University of Texas Tower with a rifle and started to take pot shots at those below him and formalised the rites of the spree kill, (and establishing the traditional that it be performed on the grounds of an educational establishment,) which is now the default way for misunderstood men to get their point across. They are what the latter half of the 20th Century had instead of the Bloomsbury Set.
Tower self-identifies as a documentary but really it exists in the cracks between dramatic reconstruction and reportage: actors are involved but they are presented in rotoscope animation, mixed in with some archive footage shot on the day. This style of animation was pioneered by Austin's foremost filmmaker Richard Linklater in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. It's a way of capturing actor's performances that is incredibly life like and yet artificial – you can really see the actors beneath it but it's distorted like a low resolution mpeg or a laptop screen seen from an angle.
There is something inherently creepy about this construction – seeing the real puffs of black and white rifle smoke from the tower on the day and then seeing these animated figure being struck down or running for cover – but around halfway through the film starts to introduce the real people and to merge them with the performers and then the film suddenly starts to connect with you and in a very direct and moving way.
Maitland's film restricts itself to the events of the day, to the people on the ground and their experiences. Whitman himself is ignored. We don't see his face other than a photo of him as a three-year-old on the beach, a rifle in each hand. In any other film, for any other killer, I'd applaud the choice not to glorify the killer, concentrate on the victims and those affected, but just this once I think it might've been instructive to try and explore the psyche of a man who imposed his neurosis on the world. His absence may also confer on him more power and stature than he deserves, making him this unknowable demon, a dark omnipotent menace. Probably, you can't win dealing with these people.
Instead the film's focus becomes the body of a pregnant girl, Claire, who was among the first to be shot and had to lie on the middle of the plaza in front of the tower next to her dead boyfriend on the hot concrete. Everything seems to happen in relation to her stricken body.
The film is truthful and insightful, but it does fall into some Hollywood conventions. The event is presented as a defining moment, the time when people learn if they are the type who freeze or act in a crisis. It also divides people into winner and losers, heroes or bit part players. Whenever we meet a person we know that if they have a voiceover than they are going to make it through. The film's closing credits tell us that it is dedicated to the memory of the 16 victims but apart from Clare's boyfriend and her baby, and one police officer, we don't find out anything about the other people who are killed.