On August 1st, 1966, ex-Marine Charles Whitman took up a position on top of the clock-tower at the University of Texas in Austin with a small arsenal, and began sniping at anyone who happened to be in his firing line. The event is sometimes listed as the first of America’s killing spree crimes – though it also fits into a historical continuity of violence with precedents like the JFK assassination and too many subsequent, terrifying incidents to list. The figure of Whitman resonates in pop culture too, haunting Peter Bogdanovich’s debut feature Targets and informing the relevant paranoid visions of Whitley Strieber (who once claimed – untruthfully – to have been in the square that day), Tobe Hooper (an Austin resident) and Stephen King (in Apt Pupil and others). Most recently, Whitman was a reference in the metafictional Director’s Cut. In 1975, Kurt Russell played Whitman in a true crime TV movie The Deadly Tower.
For practical as much as artistic reasons, director Keith Maitland recreates the day – a little over an hour and a half of it: the running time of a typical film – through rotoscope animation after the manner of Richard Linklater (another Austin filmmaker) in Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly. This stretches (very little) news footage a long way, but also serves powerfully to take us back to a time and place – key survivors of the incident are interviewed, but they appear onscreen as cartoon versions of who they were then, with stunning moments late in the film after we’ve become used to the style as Maitland cuts to footage of them as they are now. Black and white bleeds into colour as the memories become more real, and the soundtrack makes great use of contemporary what-was-on-the-radio music and the relentless crack of shots (hundreds of them). It’s an achievement to make a heartwarming film about mass murder, but this delivers a clutch of moments it’s impossible not to be moved by – as a kid and his cousin, who were shot off their bike, reunite fifty years on, stressed to relive the trauma but visibly delighted to see each other again after a long separation … which is only a prelude to the moment that brings together Claire Wilson, who was pregnant when she was shot and lay in the open on baking-hot ground assuming she would die, and John ‘Artly’ Snuff Fox, the Spider-Man-reading, chessplaying, bespectacled teenager who dragged her to safety and still feels guilty that he didn’t do it sooner. Claire’s story includes a Donovan-scored psychedelic memoir of her relationship with boyfriend Tom Eckman (not the father of her unborn child), who was killed that day, and the remarkable intervention of Rita Star Pattern who lay down with her in open sight of the killer just to talk her through the ordeal (Star Pattern, who died in the 1990s, completely shakes your stereotype of peacenik hippie chicks).
The film also follows policemen Ray Martinez and Houston McCoy and bookstore manager Allen Crum – who ventured up the tower and eventually shot and killed Whitman. And news reporter Neal Spelce, who covered the story while crouching behind a car door. There have been so many films, documentary and docudrama, about mass murderers that the real revelation here is that Whitman is of no interest to Maitland – who never shows his face (until Claire shows a Life magazine feature which runs a photo of him as a three-year-old), rarely uses his name and keeps him up in the tower to concentrate on what matters – the people who were hurt or killed or had to do their job. Reading between the lines, Martinez remains haunted by having to kill and McCoy by not taking action earlier (‘coulda shoulda’) – and all the gun-toting Texans who showed up to ‘help out’ just added to the danger (after Whitman is killed, Crum waves a handkerchief to signal the end of the shooting and is misidentified as the sniper – while the vigilantes keep firing. A Vietnam veteran who tries to get injured people to safety makes good use of his experience, while even deputised Crum makes a near-fatal mistake (shooting a wall) while the trained officers advance on the sniper.
The most heartbreaking moment is Claire’s list of the victims, which ends with her unnamed, unborn child – later, she adopted a war orphan, but didn’t have more children of her own. The takeaway from Tower is of ordinary, modest heroism and fellow-feeling. Which makes it a necessary film.