HELL Raining from Above

On Aug. 1, 1966, after killing his wife and his mother, 25-year-old Charles Whitman climbed to the observation deck of the University of Texas’ iconic tower in Austin, killing three people inside the building and shooting 45 more from the tower itself; 14 died. His shooting spree lasted just over 90 minutes before he was shot dead by two policeman. It was one of the worst mass shootings of its time, the predecessor of such atrocities at Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook and elsewhere.

Whitman was prominently referenced in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and portrayed by Kurt Russell in a 1975 TV movie. The rampage was a major inspiration for Peter Bogdanovich’s debut film Targets (1968) with a terrific performance by 80-year-old Boris Karloff.

The best film yet about the Texas shootings and one of the most effective, imaginative documentaries in recent years has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray. Written and directed by Keith Maitland, Tower (’16) is a unique combination of animation, newsreel footage and personal interviews; it focuses on both the horrors and the heroics of that day. Absorbing as a narrative, it’s also deeply moving and, finally, inspiring.

Tower is not about the killer. Whitman is named only at the end, and the sniper is never actually shown, in animation or real life, except for a news photo of him as a young boy, holding a pair of guns, near the film’s end. In actual footage of the shootings, we only see puffs of smoke rising from his rifle as he lay hidden in rain spouts at the tower’s top level. When he’s finally shot to death, the animation shows only the two policeman firing their weapons.

Had Maitland decided to exploit the tragedy with such an explicit moment (indeed, had he opted to explore more about the killer, his background and motives), he might’ve channeled a more popular (and prurient) approach. Instead, he tells the stories of the victims and survivors. It’s both a commercially brave and artistically correct decision.

Using animation and actors’ voices, the real-life characters speak in plain but effective animated renderings of how they might have looked at the time. Toward the end, the film cuts back and forth between animated faces and actual people, speaking in their own voices, as they are today. It’s an incredibly effective technique.

Following closely the actual time frame of the shootings, one of the first stories is that of Claire Wilson and her boyfriend Tom Eckman, two of Whitman’s early victims. He was shot dead while she, eight months pregnant, lay on her back on the concrete, seriously wounded, unable to move in the baking Texas sun. Her eventual rescue by John “Artly Snuff” Fox and James Love, each with a perspective of his own, is a powerful moment in Tower.

Wilson’s tale has another example of astonishing, heroism. Racing to her side, fellow student—a total stranger—Rita Starpattern flung herself next to Claire, exposed to the sniper as she tried to console the wounded and keep her conscious. Though both women miraculously survived the slaughter, Rita died later, long before Tower was made. The filmmakers and Wilson pay her a moving tribute at the end.

Among the surviving wounded was a young boy, shot off his bike as he and his cousin delivered papers. His story is first told by way of animation and an actor’s voice, but near the end, we see the victim 50 years later, reunited with that same cousin; they had been separated for decades.

Ramiro “Ray” Martinez and Houston McCoy were the two police officers who finally stopped Whitman, and their individual stories (before and after they joined forces in the tower that day) are among the film’s most compelling. Contemplating the events of that day 50 years later near the end of Tower, McCoy nearly breaks down, regretting he hadn’t been able to do something sooner, saving at least one more life. Their heroism is a grand example of what a police officer can be.

Tower is a remarkable work of cinema; it utilizes different forms of narrative—animation, newsreels, home movies, contemporary music—to seamlessly convey a powerful story. Near the end, we see Walter Cronkite’s moving commentary on the night of the Austin shootings. The venerable newscaster concludes that “Whitman’s crime was society’s crime.”

Overlapping “Uncle Walter” Cronkite’s words with scenes of so many such events in recent years, Tower makes a compelling argument about the monsters among us—as well as the unsung heroes.