Tower ★★★½

Tower is a peculiar and unique style of documentary. It can not quite be filed away as a reenactment, but instead something of an animated dramatization. It documents the events of the 1966 shooting at the University of Texas from the perspectives of the victims and the people who ultimately stopped the shooter. The name of the film is derived from the tower on the University of Texas campus from which the shooter conducted his attack. It is largely animated, including many of the “talking heads” where voice actors actually perform the statements of the real-life survivors. It’s a very original approach to both the subject matter and the format itself, but it’s well executed by director Keith Maitland.

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The use of animation was jarring at first, but ultimately proved to be an effective tool toward creating a realistic window through which to see the events. Live action reenactments tend to be stiff and often come across as phony, but the animation actually served to enhance the realism almost as if you were watching an actual rendering of the horrific moment. It’s an especially interesting effect, because in a more typical documentary of this type based around stock footage with current video of the survivors, the survivors wouldn’t look anything like they did in the footage. However, because even the talking heads were largely animated, they matched their animated counterparts in the dramatization. It made it feel as if they were recounting the events right after they happened.

Maitland actually managed to use the testimony of the survivors and the animation to create a narrative with active characters. It was an unusual but engrossing technique that gave the film the feel of real drama. At times it feels like you are watching actual events unfold. The narrative jumps from character to character as the voice actors, in the words of the real people, describe exactly what they did and how they felt as they tried to hang onto their lives and watched their peers fall before their eyes.

It may be obvious based on the subject matter, but the movie can be very hard to watch. The accounts of these survivors are painful as they remember their deceased friends and loved ones. The sound design is spectacular as each shot rings through your ears loudly and aggressively. There is an especially jarring moment the first time that the true face of one of the survivors is shown. The first woman shot was a pregnant woman. She lost her baby and her boyfriend in the attack, and she is one of the central figures the film focuses on. At one point as she recounts her story, the screen flashes from her animated talking head to actual video of her telling the story. Frankly, it is likely the most effective single moment of a 2016 film that I’ve seen.

The premise of Tower is perhaps simple, but it is executed wonderfully. It tells the story of the survivors honestly and emotively, and it refuses to descend into talking about the background of the shooter himself. The final moments are reflective and melancholy, but send a powerful message. A montage toward the film’s close reflects on similar events that have happened since and how this singular moment shaped the way that we view tragedy in modern society. It makes a strong statement about how desensitized to violence we have become and reminds us to focus on those whose lives are lost and destroyed by these horrible tragedies. Tower is a wonderful work of art, but also a monumental social statement.

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