Award Season 2016: ‘Tower’ Innovates While Describing Mass Murder ✮✮✮✮✮

Keith Maitland’s “Tower” is an innovative documentary that recounts a horrific event by looking at the viewpoints of the bystanders and the victims and re-creating the events without expecting us to take the re-enactments as reality. Maitland accomplishes this by using rotoscoping animation that is intercut with archival footage from a sweltering hot day in August in 1966 when Charles Whitman became the first perpetrator of a campus mass murder.

Whitman was not the first mass murder in the U.S. A mass murder is defined by the FBI as four or more victims in a single incident, usually in one location. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, that would be Melvin Collins, a 30-year-old man who killed eight people in a Chester, Pennsylvania boardinghouse before committing suicide. That was a crime quickly forgotten. Better known is the “Walk of Death” rampage of Howard Unruh less than a year later, on Sept. 6 in 1949. The 28-year-old Unruh was a former military man, having served during World War II. He killed 13 people and wounded four in 20 minutes before barricading himself in is apartment. Unruh was taken alive and lived the remainder of his life under psychiatric care.

The University of Texas Tower Shooting on August 1, 1966 lasted 96 minutes. It was preceded by the murders of Kathleen Leissner Whitman, Charles’ wife, and Margaret Whitman, his mother.  Charles left a note that indicated  his motivation wasn’t hate or anger toward them, but rather love–he wanted to spare them the notoriety after he committed the murders at UT. None of this is important in “Tower.”

Maitland doesn’t add this into his chronological time table. Instead, the voices of the survivors tells us who their day began. Claire Wilson (Violett Beane) is with her fiancé, Thomas F. Eckman, walking together and arguing about her eating habits. Seventeen-year-old Aleck Hernandez Jr. was unexpectedly delivering newspapers that day, replacing someone else.

Neal Spelce was a reporter for KTBC, heard a police report and drove to the scene and began reporting.  Alfred (Alfie) McAlister was a freshman. So was John Fox, now known as Artly Snuff. Fox was listening to KNOW radio station while playing chess with a friend. The radio reported someone was on the university’s tower, shooting with an air rifle from the observation deck.

Ray Martinez was getting ready for work; it was a normal Monday morning until he heard a radio report of a shooter. Officer Houston McCoy thought it would all be over when he got there.

Martinez would be one of four men who stormed the tower. McCoy would be right behind him.  Fox with his friend James Love would run out and save Claire Wilson.

By the end of the film, you’ll get to see many of the real people as they appear now, decades after the shooting, but you’ll also be able to identify their words with their animated actor. Too often we are fascinated and fixated on the perpetrators of these crimes and this may have the troubling effect of glamorizing or glorifying them. Maitland’s approach does neither. We eventually do see him, but this is so late into the documentary, we’re already invested in the other voices, especially the love story that ended tragically too soon to be tested by time.

“Tower” is a fascinating, sensitive look at a tragic historic event that takes the glory about of a blazing death and serves as a ready antidote for our violence-prone reality.

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