Claire Wilson was the first to be shot. She was walking across the campus of The University of Texas with her boyfriend one hot day on August 1st 1966 when she felt something strike her side and she went down, her partner following quickly after. As she lay on the concrete in the blazing sunshine, she became aware of two things: that her boyfriend was dead, and that the baby she had been carrying was probably dead as well, for she could not feel him moving inside her anymore. What she didn't know was that she was the first victim of a terrible, modern phenomenon that has only spread in incidents in the intervening decades, and not only in the United States: the mass shooting.
Charles Whitman is not named in this documentary until the very last moment they could reach without invoking his name, and the impression was that if director Keith Maitland could have gotten away with it never being invoked in the entire running time, then he would have. This was a film in favour of the victims, and we never see Whitman's (adult) face in an archive photograph, though we see plenty of others from the time, again underlining what was important about these situations, not the killers but those whose lives they affect, even those ended by them. But there was a lot distinctive about Tower, named after the architectural feature which gave the shooter his vantage point.
Visually, in a fashion adopted by a few predecessors such as Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir, Maitland decided to make the story as immediate as possible by rotoscoping his cast, animating over them to create the illusion of them telling their account of those events shortly after the time they occurred, though the effect was a curious limbo where the actors were speaking the lines given in real life interviews from more recent times, from the point of view of many years in the future, yet were talking as if this was happening almost simultaneously. It was an approach that could have backfired, leading to a potential disorientation in the audience, but you got the idea surprisingly, almost instantly, possibly thanks to these atrocities happening with such frequency.
And yet being transported back to the first instance of a mass shooting made this look like the opening shot in a war against the innocent by what one interviewee terms as the monsters walking amongst us. Not everyone shares that despairing view, as we catch up with Wilson and she has obviously come to terms with surviving the crime, saying she forgives what must have been a deeply damaged man, and you can sort of see where she was coming from. Much of that was down to the way his heartless actions brought out so much good in those who were involved, the bravery of, for instance, Rita Starpattern who ran out to where Claire was lying and kept her alive in that heat by making sure she was conscious and holding a conversation with her; it's a remarkable anecdote of courage under enormous pressure.
It was also very moving, and that could be applied to the rest of the documentary. Many audiences found themselves crying at various stages when watching Tower, crying for the afflicted and the tragedy, but also brought to tears knowing killers such as Whitman were in the minority, and the majority of humanity would try to do their best to rescue and assist the victims under that kind of pressure. Maitland mixed news footage from the day, both television and radio, with his recreations and interviews, both the reshot ones and new ones with a handful of still-living survivors who even in their old age are still coming to terms with being caught up in that day. Tower was one of those ideas that on paper didn't sound promising, yet in effect succeeded beyond all expectations, to the extent that you thought if it could be more widely seen, it might even prevent these shootings in the future as it chimed so resonantly with the viewer's most basic, human sympathies; maybe not all of them, but its compassion was highly affecting. Music by Osei Essed, with pointed use of Clair de Lune by Debussy.