For many, the University of Texas is known as a football legacy school. Every fall the Longhorns command the football field in hopes that the University Tower will illuminate the campus below in a magnificent orange light. However, for those of us who are Texan by heritage, the tower also has an ominous past.

On August 1, 1966, the University of Texas campus was cemented in history as the location of the first mass school shooting. Charles J. Whitman ascended the tower set on terminating the lives of countless innocent people, and unfortunately he succeed 16 times. It’s a dark day in the school, and the town’s, history, and until now was never experienced by anyone other than the ones there that day.

Keith Maitland’s new film Tower explores this day in a genre breaking way that leaves the audience breathless. The fusion of archival footage and photographs with modern animation creates a unique film that consistently plays on the heart-strings. The genre blending of styles is a big reason why the film is so powerful. You get caught up in the fantasy of the animation, but are slammed back down to reality with the photos and news footage. These circumstances have sadly become a part of normal society, but that didn’t change the fact that the audience experiences the pain for the first time.

Film Still from Tower

Film Still from Tower

The film is constructed in a way that is easy to place yourself into that time period. The emotional connection felt towards the victims and survivors is beyond the limits of characterization. The use of dialogue from genuine interviews, and seeing the visual shift between the actors and their counterparts, made it much more than a retelling of an event in history. This was a changing point in our society.

When the reenactment element is presented, at first it’s hard to believe. The mimicry is so beautiful that the message of the film is solidified from exploring a violent incident to honoring those who have stayed in the shadows. In countless other explorations, the focus has always been on Whitman. The analysis of why and how steamrolled the documentations, but that has stopped with Tower. This film is about the survivors, the ones who risked their life for those fallen fellow students. 

These are the true heroes of the film, of the situation. The selfless acts of courage reached beyond the two officers, Houston McCoy (Blair Jackson) and Ramiro “Ray” Martinez (Louie Arnette) and the storeclerk Alan Crum (Chris Doubek) who ascended the tower to eliminate Whitman. The bravery shown by the students, like Rita Starpattern (Josephine McAdam) and John “Arty” Fox (Seamus Bolivar-Ochoa), who rescued victims, like Claire Wilson (Violett Beane), and who risked their own lives as the attack was still transpiring. There were several people who returned fire in the hopes to stop Whitman, using their own weapons as a tool, but the emotional center will always be the valor of those who used nothing but themselves as their instrument for protection

Film Still from Tower

Film Still from Tower

There is a good chance that if you talk to a generational Texan, you will find family stories revolving around that day. I have one, a family friend was on campus, but beyond that I’m not sure on the details. They never mentioned their level of involvement, and it was never talked about. It was such a shock, a tragedy on such a grand scale, that our parents, or even our grandparents, did not know how to react to such trauma. It was a different world in the 1960s, and 50 years later its time we present an opportunity for our loved ones to heal. Tower allows them that space, it grants them the power to heal.

As with any great documentary, Tower makes you think, it makes you angry. How is this violent act against innocent people still being replicated, and on a much more grand scale? The take away goes far beyond the fight for the rights to own a gun, but instead hones in on the overall cause. The quote from Walter Cronkite, “Charles Joseph Whitman’s crime is societies crime,” pummels your soul.

Tower uses multiple film techniques to its advantage, and presents itself in a uniquely powerful way. Their creation of the Historical Fiction, animated documentary, genre creates a reality for the audience that is emotional. The names and faces of the victims and survivors are honored, and respect is finally given to those who deserve it the most.

Tower opens on Friday, October 21st, at the following theaters in Austin TX: Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, Violet Crown, and the Arbor.


Written by Lisa Mejia
Images provided by Brigade Marketing