On the morning of August 1, 1966, Eagle Scout, former Marine and expert sniper Charles Whitman introduced the United States to the concept of mass murder; the idea that any group of people walking around anywhere could be gunned down without apparent reason or provocation. Just 25-years old that summer day in 1966, Whitman climbed up the observation desk at the University of Texas Tower. For the next 96 minutes, Whitman fired at staff and students alike, killing 14 people, and wounding 32 others.
Fifty years after the tragedy, director Keith Maitland’s (a UT alum), Tower seeks to examine the day’s events as they unfolded. However, realizing that the University likely wouldn’t allow him on campus to film such a documentary, Maitland has employed rotoscoped animation (animation over live-action footage), effectively recreating the tension and fear of those on campus that day. It’s also an opportunity to tell what is obviously a difficult story without exploiting the victims. It’s also refreshing that Tower barely mentions Charles Whitman, instead focusing on the survivors and various acts of heroism that day.
One of the most touching stories from that day is Claire Wilson. Eight months pregnant, she had been taking summer classes, enjoying the prospect of becoming a parent with boyfriend Tom. The first victim of the shooting, Tom was killed instantly by a bullet, while Claire was left to bleed out on a 100-degree day in Austin. Pleading for help and unable to move, recalls hearing people hiding, even discussing the fact that she was beyond help. Eventually, a complete stranger named Rita Starpattern ran into the line of fire to help; lying beside Claire in the intense heat to keep her talking, conscious long enough to survive.
The sheer tragedy of Wilson’s story provides the nexus for the film, subsequent voices remind us of the simple humanity on display that day. The audience meets John “Artly” Fox, a student who built up enough courage to run to Claire and get her to safety. The inherent danger was better than watching her broil to death under the relentless summertime sun. We are also privy to the recollections of Ramiro “Ray” Martinez and Houston McCoy, the lawmen who ultimately ended Whitman’s reign of terror.
While the acts of individual heroism obviously stand out, the confession of Brenda Bell, that she inside a building and watched everything unfold, even as a policeman was shot. “That was the moment that separated the brave people from the scared people. I knew that there was no way I was going to go out there and help him. I didn’t want to get shot,” she says matter-of-factly. “That was the defining moment because I realized I was a coward.”
Initially, I wondered whether the use of rotoscoped animation would lessen the impact of the victims/survivor’s stories, but in fact, the opposite is true. Maitland has been able to capture the subtle expressions on each person’s face–the eyes of a cop squinting at the thought of his failure to act more quickly. Small touches like that make an already poignant story unforgettable. Over the years, Charles Whitman has been remembered through songs, and portrayed by Kurt Russell in the 1975 made-for-TV movie The Deadly Tower. Tower finally gives those caught in Whitman’s reign of terror to share their memories of that fateful day. A day that changed many of their lives forever.
Presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Tower has been given a solid 1080p transfer. Pinpoint sharpness brings out the best of what the animation has to offer. Textures and detail are superb, lending a lifelike appearance to the proceedings. Colors are appropriately vibrant, adding to the overall appeal of the transfer. Delineation is also appropriate. While occasional banding pops up, it does nothing to ruin the overall viewing experience.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA sound mix likely won’t blow anyone away, but it does a good job with this material. It handles the various voices well, merging older survivors with those of younger actors. Dialogue is clean, and clear throughout. Musical cues never interfere with dialogue, coming in at appropriate intervals. Music also adds some heft to the surround activity. Atmospherics–the sounds around the campus–are important, and maintain their sense of dread.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- After the Screening Q&A’s (HD, 11:15) Footage from various Texas film festivals featuring director Keith Maitland, the film’s producers, various survivors of the shooting, and others. The film is discussed in depth here.
- Behind the Scenes: Animation (HD) A split-screen deconstruction of artistry, matching live-action cinematography to rotoscoping, which covered for the production’s use of empty lots and offices to stand in for the University of Texas at Austin campus. Animations are broken up into “Aleck Hernandez” (:49), “Allen Crum” (1:06), “Claire and Rita” (1:20), “Interview Animation Process” (1:34), and “McCoy and Martinez” (:45).
- Character Profiles (HD) Spotlighting the participants in Tower. The profiles occur as listed: “Houston McCoy” (2:33), “John Fox” (3:26), “Monika McCoy” (2:23), “Neal Spelce” (2:30), “Ramiro ‘Ray’Martinez” (2:49), “Aleck Hernandez” (3:05), “Allen Crum” (2:37), “Brenda Bell” (3:06), “Claire Wilson James” (3:46), and “David Crum” (1:39).
- Memorial Dedication (HD, 4:22) It took fifty years, as a stone is placed in tribute to the murdered on the University of Texas at Austin campus, 2016. Survivors share memories, and pay tribute to the fallen.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 1:56)
Movie title: Tower (2016)
Director(s): Keith Maitland
Actor(s): Violett Beane , Louie Arnette, Blair Jackson, Monty Muir, Chris Doubek, Reece Everett Ryan