'Tower' Offers A Unique And Enthralling Look At An American Tragedy [SXSW Review]

On August 1, 1966, a gunman climbed the tower at the University of Texas in Austin and opened fire with a high-powered rifle. After 96 minutes, the sniper was dead, but so were 16 of his victims. Dozens more were wounded. A nation looked on in shock. And it was just the harbinger of more violence to come in the ensuing decades.

Tower is director Keith Maitland's beat-for-beat retelling of what went down during those 96 minutes and an examination of the aftermath, exploring how the events of that day changed those who were there and set the stage for an America where school shootings are so common that no one bats an eye when they occur. It's a sobering, even stirring, film. And it's partially animated.

The style of Tower recalls Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir, another film that combines animation with documentary storytelling to help tell a difficult and tragic story. Maitland utilizes rotoscoping for his re-enactments, painting over actors and locations to transport the audience deep into the past. The results are inherently cinematic, with the story capable of creating images and conveying ideas that would be difficult within the confines of an ordinary documentary. Also like Waltz With Bashir, Tower wields live-action footage like a weapon – it serves an punctuation on key moments, snapping you into the horrible reality of certain situations. The animation lulls you in, painting an abstraction of a tragedy...and then cold reality washes over you like a bucket of ice water.

For its first hour, Tower is an engrossing retelling of the events of that day. Multiple figures share their stories: a pregnant woman who was the first to be shot and waited to die in the heat, a paperboy literally shot off his bike, a salesman who finds himself thrust into the heart of the violence, a 17-year old boy who steps up and becomes a hero, a college student who comes to terms with her cowardice, a reporter on the scene, and the brave police officers who ultimately confront the gunman. Their stories are initially told to us through their animated avatars, their younger selves, speaking to us from another time. Eventually, the survivors themselves actually appear on screen to back up their rotoscoped selves and this becomes the kind of movie where a simple cut to a talking head may cause you to burst into tears. They made it out. They survived. After all, they're in the documentary.

It feels wrong to call Tower thrilling, but for its first hour, it is an enthralling experience. Maitland leaps between perspectives to depict the horrifying escalation of the situation from every angle, ratcheting up tension. Tower is devastating, but it's also a portrait of ordinary men and women rising to the occasion to help their fellow human beings in the middle of a inexplicable war zone. It's intense. It's moving.

Unfortunately, Tower's final half hour isn't nearly as strong as its first half. As the story of August 1, 1966 comes to a close, Maitland turns his attention to the aftermath and the present. The subtext, that this shooting set the stage for countless other acts of mass violence, becomes text. The film vanishes down a series of rabbit holes, exploring how police officers are being trained to deal with school shootings and following survivors as they reunite decades later. This material is fine and educational and Maitland is being responsible for including it...but it lacks the pure cinema of that first hour. It stops being something you haven't seen before and starts being the kind of "eat your vegetables" documentary that populates film festivals on a regular basis. It's good. It's necessary. But it's also disappointing.

And yet, it's hard to argue with the film's final mic drop: a memorial to the victims of the shooting is set to be unveiled on the same day that campus open-carry laws go into effect in Texas. By placing us in the heart of a tragedy, by making us relive every terrifying moment with the men and women who were there, Tower drives its point home: why did we let this happen again? And again? And again?

/Film rating: 8.5/10