Tower (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): That horrible summer day in Austin, Texas

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On August 1st, 1966, a guy named Charles Whitman went up to the top floor of the University of Texas Tower in Austin, Texas, and then he committed one of the most atrocious shooting incidents in the American modern history. When his reign of terror was finally over after 96 minutes, 16 people were dead while three dozen people were injured, and the whole nation was shocked and devastated by this heinous act of violence.

Mainly driven by the testimonies from a group of various witnesses who happened to be there during that terrible summery day, documentary film “Tower” attempts to give us a vivid and visceral presentation of the incident, and the result is quite harrowing thanks to its thoughtful attitude mixed with a surprisingly effective storytelling approach. Through its skillful combination of testimonies, archival footage clips, and animation, the documentary takes us right into the confusion and terror during the incident, and it gives us a number of emotionally powerful moments while never losing its focus on the human dimensions of its subject.

The documentary begins with how everything looked fine and usual for one of the witnesses presented in the documentary and her boyfriend on that fateful day. After taking a class exam, they had a lunch together, and then they went outside, and that was when she was suddenly shot and then collapsed on the ground. While she was trying to grasp what exactly happened to her, her boyfriend was also shot and then died, and that was the beginning of her long, torturous nightmare in broad daylight.

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With gunshots being continued and several more people getting shot, the area surrounding the tower was quickly thrown into sheer panic and disorientation. In case of a witness who was a teenager boy at that time, he was abruptly shot while he was delivering newspapers with his younger cousin, and then we hear about how a college employee got himself involved in the ongoing emergency circumstance more than expected. At first, he just wanted to make a phone call for telling his wife that he was okay, but he subsequently found himself going inside the tower as looking for a phone, and there is a rather amusing moment which shows his little act of defiance to the shooter at the top of the tower before his eventual entrance into the tower.

The testimonies of these and other witnesses in the documentary are mostly read by actors, who also performed for the recreation of the witnesses’ recounts via rotoscope animation. The resulting animation scenes may look a bit plain at first, they generate undeniably striking emotional urgency as frequently intercut with archival footage clips which were actually shot during the incident, and we accordingly get more absorbed into the increasingly intense mood surrounding the tower during that time.

One of the most harrowing moments in the documentary comes from that aforementioned pregnant woman, who had to lie down still on the hot concrete ground for more than an hour for her survival even though quite devastated by her immense personal loss. She saw many people looking at her from the distance, but nobody was willing to come out and then help her because they were understandably afraid of getting shot, and she had no choice but to endure her grueling circumstance alone – until one young brave woman came and then lay down near her for supporting her.

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And then we see more cases of human bravery against unspeakable evil. In case of one college student who came into the scene along with his friend just for mere curiosity, he rose to the occasion when he clearly discerned that something had to be done for that pregnant woman in danger, and she was eventually rescued thanks to the valiant act of this dude and a few other people. In case of two police officers who managed to go inside the tower and then approach quite close to the shooter on the top of the tower, they simply focused on what should be done as soon as possible despite being very afraid, and the sequence depicting their eventual confrontation with the shooter is quite tense to say the least with the ironic utilization of a certain famous classic piece by Claude Debussy on the soundtrack.

The documentary, which is partially based on Pamela Colloff’s 2006 Texas Monthly article “96 Minutes”, also shows us the aftermath of the incident, and that is where it becomes more moving. Some of the witnesses in the documentary are directly shown to us, and there is a very poignant moment when one of them tells us how she has moved on with her life since the incident. Although she is sometimes reminded of what she lost because of the incident, she has had a good life on the whole, and she even shows a little pity toward the shooter, whom she already forgave a long time ago.

Directed and produced by Keith Maitland, who also worked as the co-cinematographer, “Tower” is a respectful and touching tribute to the victims and survivors of the University of Texas tower shooting in 1966, and its subject certainly resonates with those numerous mass shooting incidents in the American society. As shown from the two recent mass shooting incidents which happened several days ago, nothing much has been changed during last 53 years except getting worse and worse, and you may find yourself becoming more concerned as observing what is shown at the end of the documentary.

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