'Tower' Is An Important & Timely Movie That Explores The First Mass School Shooting
One of the most impactful stories told on film this year comes in the surprising form of an animated documentary, but that's all the more reason that Tower, out in limited release now, is worth watching. Director Keith Maitland based his film on a 2006 Texas Monthly article by Pamela Kollof, and uses original storytelling techniques to examine one of the defining American tragedies of the 21st Century in terms of its cultural significance. The 1966 mass shooting on the campus of University of Texas at Austin left 16 people dead and dozens more injured. Combining rotoscope technology, reenactment, and first-person interviews, and examining a devastating topic that has never been more relevant in today's America, Tower is the important and timely movie you need to see this year.
The massacre committed by Charles Whitman while he was barricaded at the top of the University of Texas's iconic Tower building is regarded as being the first mass school shooting in American history. In 1966, a mass shooting — particularly one at a school, of all places — was unheard of, as noted by Manohla Dargis in her review of the film in The New York Times. She cites a Life Magazine cover story which called the events “so outrageous, so hard to grasp, that people could not believe it.”
50 years later, mass shootings in America are so common that a crowdsourced website exists to tally how many hundreds of them have happened each year. According to Mass Shooting Tracker, as of October 13, 2016, there have been 374 mass shootings in 2016 — that's more than one a day. And Whitman's shooting at UT, examined in detail in Tower, still remains the third-worst school shooting in American history.
Tower sheds light on the details of this historic tragedy, focusing narrowly on the events of the day, but allowing the last 50 years of American gun lobbying, political debates, and endless public tragedies to implicitly color viewers' perceptions of the events. The Tower shooting, in many ways, was a harbinger of future chaos and devastation, allowing audiences to see how far America has come, to the point where it feels as though almost every few weeks, we have to make room in our hearts for more innocents who have died. Joyful clubgoers. Bright college students. Elementary school children in their classrooms.
The gun control debates of recent years have intensified as more and more heinous and deadly mass killings have continued to occur. Chillingly, Texas's controversial "Campus Carry" law, which allows guns on college campuses — including UT — and has been widely protested, went into effect on Aug 1, 2016, the 50th anniversary to the day of the Tower shooting. This depressing and poignant timing makes Tower necessary viewing, as the film provides historical grounding for — and images in the exact same setting as — the current debates.
One of the most important choices made by the filmmakers was to highlight the very human stories of the victims, survivors, and witnesses of the tragedy. The one person not given much attention in the documentary is Whitman himself, in a refreshing change of pace from American society's all-too-common obsession with the perpetrators of horrific crimes. Tower's creators chose instead to tell personal stories and craft a respectful and illuminating narrative of the people on the ground.
Indeed, one of the most powerful things about Tower is the how the creators have found an original way to humanize events that, due to their horrific regularity, have left many numb.
Images: Kino Lorber