Directed by Keith Maitland
There exists, in our collective mythos, historical events that mostly live in our subconscious. Events that we have heard about, or know a little about, but happened so long ago, or have been so overshadowed by much more current..and awful…events, that we only think of them as a piece of our nebulous past. One of these events is the first random, mass school shooting in American history at the University of Texas, when on a hot August day, a lone gunman, occupying a perch at the school’s tower, killed sixteen people and injured thirty-six more.
“Tower” artfully and, very successfully, brings that fuzzy recollection in to razor sharp focus, doing so with immediacy, importance and in a spellbinding manner. So much so, that upon completion, you will wonder how it is we don’t know more about it. You might, as I did, feel cheated…that we should KNOW it as an actual event – with real consequences, heroism, and senseless carnage. And, further, given the current never-ending recurrence of these events, you would be forgiven for thinking it should be OBVIOUS that we know about it in detail. But, thankfully, we now have this document to correct that wrong.
By utilizing animation and voice over performance, the story loses the “historical doc” distance that mere talking heads and news footage would have created. Instead, the subjects become characters you care about, real people, with real everyday lives, interrupted by the heinous actions of one person…and the power of a gun. And, best of all, and with gratitude from this viewer, the shooter is NEVER the subject…only the victims and the heroes.
Maitland and his animation team combine photographic imagery of the Austin campus with hyper-technicolor animation (a la Bakshi’s “American Pop”) to create a world that seems inviting and innocent. This is not to say Maitland in any way goes “over the top” in his imagery. Quite the opposite. It always feels real and subtle – as if we never know what awaits around the corner, just like those who lived it. And the animation is elevated even more thanks to the small and ultra-realistic use of narrative voiceover. Using words communicated to the creators and the press by the actual players, the humanity of these characters is stressed without any accompanying or cloying tugs at the heart strings. It always feels as if we are witness to the ninety or so minutes of the attack in real time, because, of course, we are, which only adds to the tension, anger, sorrow, and remorse. Finally, Osei Essed’s haunting score only adds to the cinematic brilliance of the film.
This is one of the most unique and original historical documentaries to come down the pike in a very long time, and I am astounded the Academy did not see fit to give it a nomination over “Life, Actually” (a fine film, albeit not in the same league as “Tower”). I sincerely hope that does not diminish its chances to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. A phenomenally original and important film.
Written on 2/7/2017