• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:March 8, 2021

Tower: 96 Minutes of Terror

In 2006, Texas Monthly writer Pamela Colloff published an oral history of the 1966 massacre in Austin where a 25-year-old former Marine went to the 28th-floor observation deck of the tower at the University of Texas, found a suitable position and assumed the role of a sniper. Charles Whitman shot 42 people on campus that day, killing 16 (a 17th victim died of injuries as late as 2001). It’s a compelling read titled ”96 minutes”, detailing the drama from beginning to end. That article is also what inspired filmmaker Keith Maitland to direct this documentary, with Colloff as an executive producer. One might think the excellent article is enough, but this film finds a way to really take us to the university on that day.

Targeted by a sniper
August 1, 1966 was an unusually hot day in Austin, close to a hundred degrees. 18-year-old Claire Wilson was a freshman at the University of Texas, already eight-months pregnant. She was deeply in love with her boyfriend Tom, and that day they were having coffee. On their way out in the heat to feed the parking meter, Claire suddenly fell over as struck by lightning. Tom didn’t understand what was happening, until another bullet hit him, likely killing him instantly. As more people were targeted by the sniper, Claire lay there on the ground, with a dead boyfriend next to her and a baby in her belly that was not moving around anymore.

Earlier that day, Charles Whitman had murdered his wife and mother and now he had come to the university to make his fantasy about shooting people from the tower real…

Made possible by crowdfunding
This isn’t really the story about Whitman, but his victims and the heroes who dared confront him up on that observation deck. Maitland realized early on that making this movie would be problematic. First of all, there was the issue of financing, but that worked out thanks to crowdfunding and a grant. Secondly, Maitland understood that filming a reenactment of the events on campus would be hard, especially since he really wanted his audience to understand the logistics and get close to it.

In the end, he decided to use rotoscopic animation, a technology familiar from films like A Scanner Darkly (2006) where animators trace over live-action footage. After all, animation had been used to great effect in another documentary, Waltz With Bashir (2008). Maitland filmed the campus and then staged reenactments with a cast working against a green screen in his backyard. Watching this approach is initially a little jarring, but we’re soon drawn into the drama and its ”characters”. Actual footage from that day blends with the animation and the director shows not only a great eye for visuals but an excellent knack for storytelling, based on interviews, allowing us to get to know these people. We’re moved by what happens to them and also frequently at the edge of our seats because of the tension.

Near the end of the film, some of the actual people who lived through that day (including Claire Wilson) appear to tell us more about what they experienced and what the aftermath was like, adding even more of an emotional impact. Watching Claire talk about how she forgives Charles Whitman for what he did to her is devastatingly powerful.

We are so used to these shootings on school campuses now. In 1966, that wasn’t common and what Whitman did has etched into the minds of everyone who was alive then. Near the end of this film, Keith Maitland draws a connection to the many shootings of the past decade, some of which we barely remember. There have been so many. How sick isn’t it that the 1966 massacre would only get attention for maybe 24 hours today?

Tower 2016-U.S. Part Animated. 82 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Megan Gilbride, Keith Maitland, Susan Thomson. Directed by Keith Maitland.

Trivia: The events were fictionalized in the TV movie The Deadly Tower (1975).

Last word: “When I went to the University of Texas, my first day of freshman year in 1994, I took a student tour and I asked about the tower shooting. I was told, ‘We’re really not supposed to talk about that.’ That was the official stance from the university. And then the tour guide said, ‘But if you stick around afterward, I’ll show you where there’s some bullet holes.’ Everywhere on campus there are remnants of this thing — these little scars. It’s actually more like an open wound over our community. Because it hadn’t been tended to; it was like a wound that had been infected but kind of lived with.” (Maitland, LA Weekly)



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