EARLIER THIS MONTH, in the aftermath of the killing of fifty-nine people in Las Vegas by a lone gunman, the Washington Post described mass shootings as ‘an American problem’. Even a child of ten will have lived through more than thirty American public shootings in their lifetime. At least one study estimates that thirty-one percent of all the world’s public mass shootings have taken place in the U.S., which is home only to some five percent of the world’s total population.
You might argue that the gruesome era of mass gun violence began with an attack eerily similar to that committed by Stephen Paddock, the sixty-something twice-divorced accountant who fired from above on concertgoers in Vegas. More than fifty years ago, on a scorching hot Monday in 1966, an architectural engineering student and former Marine sharpshooter took to the tower that rises above the University of Texas in Austin and shot more than forty people. It is this tragic event that forms the basis for Keith Maitland’s documentary The Tower, which puts the experience of those present at the shooting before––but not in place of––the hard facts of the massacre.
More than fifty years ago, on a scorching hot Monday in 1966, an architectural engineering student and former Marine sharpshooter took to the tower that rises above the University of Texas in Austin and shot more than forty people.
Maitland’s film is mostly animated in the same interpolated rotoscoping style that Richard Linklater used for Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, which gives the film a dreamlike quality that perhaps reflects not only the haziness of a fifty-year-old memory but also the bizarre and grotesque character of the shooting itself. (Both Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly explore the nature of reality; Linklater said the style of animation reminded him of his own lucid dreams). Maitland’s interview subjects are the survivors of and witnesses to the shooting at the time of the shooting. In other words, animated versions of the students, teachers, journalists and police officers present, speaking the words said by themselves years later. The effect is to take the viewer back in time to the fateful day and into the shoes, if I can put it like that, of those unfortunate enough to have been present when Whitman started firing.
What The Tower forces in any viewer is more intense introspection than empathy, involving, among other things, the ancient question, What would I do?
Maitland punctuates the animated depiction of the events leading up to and including the shooting itself with real news footage taken over the course of the day. It’s something like a reminder that what is happening was real and that the cartoonish form of a pregnant woman lying on the grass as her life drains away was a young student, an eighteen-year-old freshman named Claire Wilson whose boyfriend and baby were senselessly murdered. In this, Maitland is only partly successful. What The Tower forces in any viewer is more intense introspection than empathy, involving, among other things, the ancient question, What would I do? Maitland’s film is really more about the bystanders and the spectators than the victims or the perpetrator, and the questions like the one above are made more pressing by the honesty of those bystanders, at least one of whom admits to having had to confront her own cowardice as she fled from the gunfire, leaving the wounded crying for help and vulnerable in the sights of the sniper.
Maitland’s film is nothing if not ambitious. There is a theatricality––a drama––to the events that would have led other filmmakers to be more conservative with regard to form and theme. In fact any stylisation of a story of this nature can quite easily prompt accusations of failing to treat the subject matter with the right level of respect and sympathy. But Maitland and his editor Austin Reedy, who deserves a large share of the praise rightly given to the film, have managed to create something that combines gripping storytelling with attention to fine detail and serious respect for the material; a deliberate, even principled, refusal to acknowledge the shooter until the end of the film is a touch that makes The Tower a deeply human film.