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‘Tower’ review: Haunting re-creation of university tragedy

A stranger rushes to help Claire Wilson after

A stranger rushes to help Claire Wilson after she was shot from the tower at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966 in "Tower" on PBS. Credit: TOWER Documentary LLC

THE DOCUMENTARY Independent Lens: “Tower”

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday at 10 p.m. on WNET/13.


WHAT IT’S ABOUT On a hot August day in 1966, a former Marine named Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the Main Building tower at the University of Texas at Austin lugging several rifles and roughly 700 rounds of ammunition. Using his sharpshooting skills, Whitman opened fire on people below. All told, Whitman killed 14 people and wounded 31 before he was shot to death by police.

This still-mystifying event is often cited as the first of its kind in America — what we now commonly call a school shooting. “Tower,” written and directed by Keith Maitland (himself a Texas native and UT Austin grad), recreates Whitman’s 90-minute reign of terror using animation to illustrate the testimony of survivors, policemen and citizen heroes.

MY SAY “Tower” is a haunting, moving film about a massacre that caught an innocent nation off-guard. Its main goal is to capture a feeling of shock and bafflement at a whole new method of violence — shades of 9/11, perhaps — and to honor those who risked their lives for others and fought back against an invisible assassin.

It does all this beautifully, with vivid animation (directed by Craig Staggs) and the voices of several actors who eventually cede the stage to the real-life figures themselves. Their stories are both harrowing and inspirational. Claire Wilson, a pregnant freshman, lies bleeding next to her dead boyfriend, but survives, thanks to a total stranger, Rita Starpattern, who inches out to lie nearby and keeps Wilson conscious by talking. Allen Crum, manager of the university’s bookstore, tends to a wounded paperboy and then — not knowing what else to do — joins off-duty cop Ramiro Martinez to storm the tower. “I guess you better deputize me then,” Crum says moments before they close in on the sniper.

“Tower” is primarily a commemorative film (it was released in theaters last year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the shootings), but its underlying issues feel remarkably relevant. For starters, it’s a potential Rorschach test for the gun-control debate: Whitman owned a bunker’s worth of weaponry, but was held at bay by ordinary folks who ran home for their rifles. What’s more, as the current news cycle pivots on questions about who constitutes the bigger threat to our safety — foreign terrorists or homegrown mass-murderers — “Tower” provides additional food for thought.

As for Whitman, his motives remain unknowable. Although not mentioned in the film, he did leave a note complaining of irrational thoughts and violent impulses. “I do not really understand myself these days,” he wrote. “I am supposed to be an average, reasonable and intelligent young man.”

BOTTOM LINE A haunting re-creation of a first-of-its-kind tragedy. Fifty years later, it seems, we’re no closer to answers or solutions.

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