On a hot summer day in 1966, a lone sniper perched on the University of Texas Austin’s massive tower killed 14 people and wounded 32 more as he terrorized the area for more than 90 minutes. Though it was a major story in its time, more gruesome school massacres in recent years have overshadowed it, including Columbine and the atrocities at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary. As the documentary Tower makes clear, however, the University of Texas massacre should not be forgotten as we try to make sense of the particularly American form of violence known as mass school shootings.
Though it deals with an intensely dark theme, the film is anything but grim to sit through, thanks to its ingenious use of rotoscope animation to depict the events of that day. It also sports a tuneful, evocative soundtrack, often used for ironic effect, such as the playing of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” when two unwitting college students take a walk to the tower because they thought a fellow student was harmlessly shooting off an air rifle. Those two students, luckily, were not harmed, and their innocence of the reality of the situation underscores the newness of mass school shootings at that point in time.
Many such moments reveal the tension, anxiety, terror, and also naiveté. When a busy professor comes across two female students lying on the ground wounded, he tells them to get to class, assuming they are playing some kind of art project, prank, or activist demonstration. At that time, people simply had no basis for believing that such a crime could actually occur.
The majority of Tower consists of the rotoscopic animation of the 90-minute standoff, with voice actors reading transcripts of interviews and statements given by those involved. We see their maneuvers and actions, all animated brilliantly, and the film largely consists of tensely dangerous sequences, so much so that Tower in some ways seems more like an action film than a documentary. This is the point, though—the filmmakers reestablish that tragic day as a major historical event. (One of the survivors makes a convincing case that a memorial commemorating the deaths should be established by the university.) After the shooting stops, the film shifts to live-action, featuring the real-life survivors, an effective choice that makes the movie feel complete.
The documentary reveals how focusing on one single event yields more insight than covering several such events, as many more conventional documentaries do. An important document of an overlooked major incident in recent American history, as well as an example of using art to bring the past to life as a way of honoring and understanding it, Tower is one of the year’s most unique and powerful films.