The stunning new documentary Tower explores that terribly beautiful summer day in 1966 when a former Eagle Scout took a sniper’s perch and opened fire on the University of Texas campus. Although the film’s combination of archival footage and Waking Life–ish rotoscoped animation may initially seem like a gimmick, it becomes apparent within the first few minutes that this may actually be the best way to capture the horrid unreality of the situation. You are there.
Based on a Texas Monthly article by Pamela Colloff, director Keith Maitland takes a shambling, grounds-eye approach to the material, with terrified students, green police officers, and a schlubby badass of a bookstore employee all swept up in the 90-plus minutes of random gunfire, often without any real idea of just what exactly is happening. (The identity of the shooter is mentioned only in passing near the end.)
While such a determinedly chaotic retelling may make some viewers yearn for a mid-movie Wikipedia break, the uniformly excellent vocal performances and attention to small details pay huge, helplessly fascinating dividends. When a heroic passerby describes feeling a cold spot the size of a grape between his shoulder blades while moving through the line of fire, it’s far too easy to imagine being in his place.
Even with such a wealth of worthy stories, though, Maitland keeps circling back to one of the first victims, a grievously wounded pregnant student named Claire Wilson (voiced by Violett Beane) who spent the bulk of the ordeal helplessly playing dead on the hot sidewalk. While Wilson’s delirious condition paves the way for some of the most striking animated segments, it’s ultimately the modern-day live-action appearance of her and the other participating survivors that end Tower with some modicum of hope.
As the once unthinkable central event becomes increasingly commonplace in America, Wilson’s closing thoughts on forgiveness place both her and this remarkable movie in some mightily rarified air.