In 1966, one of the worst crimes in American history at the time occurred at the University of Texas. The 2016 animated documentary Tower, directed and produced by Keith Maitland, was released 50 years after the August 1, 1966 incident, telling the stories of what happened and what people did to survive (and the 16 people who didn’t).
It was one of the first modern mass shootings in a country which has only gotten worse in this respect, from Columbine to Las Vegas to Parkland to Sandy Hook and many more. In fact, in 2021, there was an average of at least one mass killing spree every day of the year. Tower exists in a world where this kind of tragedy is so much more common 50 years later, but has the power to shock people out of complacency. Let’s look at the odd power of this animated documentary.
Tower Evokes the Feeling of the First Mass Shooting
The killer, 25-year-old Charles Whitman, called “The Texas Tower Sniper,” murdered his mother and girlfriend with knives at their home, then climbed to the top of a 300-foot clock tower at the University of Texas in Austin. There, he randomly shot at people for over an hour and a half, killing 16 and injuring more than 31, including a pregnant woman whose fetus died after she was shot, and whose story is dramatically re-enacted in Tower. Police officers went to the top of the tower where they were ultimately able to shoot Whitman to death.
On the scene was filmmaker Tobe Hooper, a student at the school. He was with his friend, the photographer Ron Perryman. A police officer approached Hooper and told him what was going on and urged him to hide; that officer was subsequently gunned down. Perryman, a photographer, took many pictures of the scene, several making their way into LIFE magazine. Several years later, Hooper directed the iconic film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Tower is an animated documentary about that terrible day, in which we saw the worst, as well as the best, humanity has to offer, with people risking their lives to help injured shooting victims who were lying out in the open. There are many true crime documentaries, but Tower stands out from most of them, and for several reasons.
Tower Focuses on Survival and Survivors More Than the Murderer
For example, much has been made of the fact that the shooter may have had a deadly tumor in the part of the brain that causes aggression, and much has been made of his service in the United States Marines, and how “normal” and even “handsome” he was, with his blond hair and innocent childish face.
Tower, on the other hand, succeeds in telling the quieter stories rather than succumbing to the glorifying focus which true crime often places on perpetrators and killers. Very little information about the shooter is mentioned in the film, with the focus shifted toward the victims on the ground and the few positive stories of people risking their lives to help the injured and other potential victims. Unfortunately, much more is known about the shooter than his victims, and how his acts changed society and shocked America.
One woman even walked over and lay down next to the pregnant woman who had been shot, pretending to be dead in order to be able to talk with her as the violent drama unfolded. The two had never met, yet the woman risked her life to make things easier and less chaotic and scary for one of the victims. During the shooting spree, they held hands and the woman had a positive discussion with the terrified, shot victim, who ended up living, forever grateful for a kind act, even as her boyfriend’s corpse was a few feet away and her unborn baby lay dead in her womb.
The Treatment of Victims in True Crime — Tower, Monster, and 11 Minutes
Tower is amazing for the respect it accords to the victims, and the lengths taken to not glorify the shooter. One can compare this to the 2022 Netflix docudrama hit Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, which, although it dedicates a lot of runtime to Dahmer, makes sure to also go into the details of the lives of some victims before meeting Dahmer, as well as on grieving family friends and the traumatized residents who lived in the same apartment building as Dahmer, whose apartment had a horrible stench of rotting meat. The series had 10 episodes, giving the filmmakers ample time to go into the details of the lives of the victims, both alive and dead. However, the amount of backlash to that Netflix series (especially from the families of victims) indicates that true crime needs more empathy toward victims and less sympathy for the devils.
An interesting contrast to this is the documentary 11 Minutes, which is about the mass shooting at the Las Vegas country music festival, where almost one thousand people were killed or injured. That film does have a lot of footage of the shooting, because many of the event’s attendees had smartphones with video cameras and thus a lot of the massacre is shown in graphic detail. The problem was that it was just too much. There are so many people randomly slaughtered that watching the film is difficult, and we never get a chance to learn the stories of all the victims or see their lives before the massacre.
11 Minutes and Tower are both great documentaries, although they are very different. Perhaps Tower depicts how we used to react to mass shootings, with horror and compassion toward each individual person, while 11 Minutes is indicative of the modern response — it’s all too much to keep track of.
The animation makes this a unique and powerful film. There is no live footage of the shootings, so with the help of technology, the filmmakers recreate the events for us using advanced animation techniques and voice-overs of actors reading the personal written accounts of the people who were there. Also included is actual television and radio footage from the shooting, brought to life by the violent animation.
Rotoscope Animation is Perfectly Used to Tell a True Story
Tower was made utilizing an animation technique that turns filmed images into realistic animated ones. The process of rotoscoping was also used for great effect in Richard Linklater’s great films A Scanner Darkly, which is based on a visionary tale by Philip K. Dick, and the dreamlike philosophical masterpiece Waking Life. It is also seen in the recent Prime Video series Undone, which has animation work from the same studio behind Tower.
It is this surreal animation that gives Tower its power, by recreating the event using modern technology that creates an extremely realistic film. Because the incident was not filmed, it was not possible to create a realistic dramatization of the events. But rotoscoping creates such an interesting and naturalistic look, combined with a dreamlike fluidity, that at times it looks like we are watching an actual firsthand memory of the events.
The film’s colors change, at times psychedelic and at times realistic, to match what is being said in the film, and the result is an emotional, psychic reenactment of the event without cheapening or exploiting it. It somehow feels more startling, more real, than watching news footage of shootings, which gives Tower an edge that can cut through our collective complacency.
To help maximize the drama, there are the sounds of a rifle firing from the tower throughout the duration of the film. One never gets used to the jarring interrupting sound of the rifle firing. Through visual and audio techniques, as well as a small amount of archival footage and very intimate interviews, the film recreates the pure chaos and terror of that horrific day. The film is memorable for its focus on the victims and survivors, and not the killer, and as such presents viewers with a disturbing memory we’ve been doomed to relive countless times, bringing the past to life and elucidating the present.