On August 1st, 1966, Charles Whitman, a white, Catholic 25-year-old who had trained as a sharpshooter with the Marines, murdered his wife and his mother, then went to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower and began targeting and shooting anyone he could see, killing 14 and wounding 31 others. It was considered the first mass “school shooting” in U.S. history and the worst mass murder in Texas history to that point.
The documentary Tower, which was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, recreates the 96 minutes from when Whitman first started shooting until he was killed by policemen who, with the help of one courageous civilian, cornered him on the observation deck. By using first-person accounts from survivors and witnesses, Tower tells the story of the shootings via animation, some of it overlaid on actual footage from either that day or that time period. It’s an utterly gripping account that comes as close as possible to putting the viewer on the scene, and focuses on the victims, both those killed that day and those injured or involved who had to carry those memories for the rest of their lives. The film is available to rent on amazon and iTunes.
Whitman’s motives remain unknown to this day, although there are multiple theories, including that a brain tumor pressing on his amygdala had caused him to have murderous or delusional thoughts. Tower doesn’t get into Whitman’s story at all; in fact, he never appears in the film, not even in animation. Instead, the documentary gives us the stories of the people who are rarely if ever mentioned when the story of the Tower shootings are told.
One student, Claire Wilson, who was eight months pregnant and walking with her boyfriend was among the first people shot by Whitman; she survived, thanks to the help of multiple good Samaritans, two of whom eventually risked their lives to drag her to safety, but she lost the baby and her boyfriend was killed immediately. Another student, John “Artly” Fox, was one of the men who went into the open to bring Claire out of the sniper’s sight so she could get medical attention, and after three months in the hospital, she survived. Tower brings the two of them together for the first time since the shootings at the end of the film. A boy delivering newspapers was shot while on his cousin’s bicycle; he survived, but his parents were first told he’d been killed before finding him alive at the hospital. Air Force veteran Allen Crum, then the manager of the campus co-op store across the street, came out to break up what he thought was a fight, then realized there was a sniper and decided to make his way to the tower itself, eventually joining the officers on the observation deck and providing cover for them as they crept up on Whitman and killed him.
Many of the principals are still alive today and appear twice over in the film – as themselves, near the end of the documentary, but in animated form as their younger selves during the reenactments. The animation gimmick works incredibly well, more than simply hiring actors would have (if such a thing were even feasible), because it allowed me at least to focus completely on their words. There’s no question of someone overacting or rendering a person inaccurately here; we get their memories, enough to give us a fairly complete picture of those 96 minutes of hell, and a closing segment as those still alive discuss life after the shootings. And because this story is rarely told – victims are largely numbers, and modern accounts will always focus on the killer instead – there are tons of details here I’d never heard before, as well as the angle that elevates some of the day’s heroes over the murderer in the telling.
I’m floored Tower didn’t advance and earn of the five nominations for Best Documentary Feature. It’s better than the four nominees of normal length, with a clear narrative and a strong angle that remains important to this day (perhaps even more so, as the current federal government wants to ensure people with serious mental illnesses have easy access to guns). And it did something novel, combining animation with real footage to provide an accurate historical rendering of a major event in American history – one that I would say is somewhat forgotten outside of Texas, perhaps because school shootings have become so commonplace. It’s better structured than I Am Not Your Negro, more compelling than Life, Animated, and lacks the fatal flaw of The 13th. For it to fall behind all of those films defies understanding.