A new documentary on the 1966 University of Texas murders, titled Tower, becomes an even stronger film as it goes along.
Debuting Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET in the PBS Independent Lens series (check local listings), Tower at first feels a little distracting because of the way it blends animation with historical footage and real-life people.
Then it builds the stories of several people who were on the campus that day: shooting victims, police, and civilians who risked their lives to help the wounded. Once we get there, the human element recaptures our attention.
From the 16 people killed and 33 wounded, filmmaker Keith Maitland particularly concentrates on Claire Wilson (left), who happened to be the first person shot.
Her story here is intensely personal. She spent more than an hour bleeding on the blistering concrete before two students took a deep breath, raced out, grabbed her arms and legs and rushed her to safety.
Claire was eight months pregnant that day. She had been walking with her boyfriend Thomas, who now was lying dead beside her.
Toward the end of Tower, Claire reads the list of those who died that day. Thomas’s name falls in the middle. Number 16 is “my baby.”
Maitland finds that reaction on the campus in those pre-social media days was eerily muted, or perhaps simply stunned. The school closed for a day, and when it reopened, there’s a consensus memory that almost no one talked about what had happened.
That didn’t mean it went away. John Fox, one of the students who rescued Claire, says he still can feel a specific spot on his back where he expected the bullet to hit him. He has spent the rest of his life, he says, knowing that “monsters walk among us.”
Two policemen, who saw one of their fellow officers killed, say they went out that night with a case of Lone Star beer and decided they would not be police officers anymore.
Claire Wilson says she “can’t hate” the shooter, “in spite of the damage he did,” because he was so clearly disturbed.
Tower pointedly does not focus on the shooter. He is never seen, and his name comes up only briefly in vintage news clips.
That’s fine. What works less well is the rotoscopic animation, which drops animated characters into simulations or sometimes actual footage of places around the campus that day.
It’s done well enough, technically. It just calls attention to itself and at times makes the documentary feel a little like a graphic novel. That’s a valid way to tell a story. It just feels like it may diminish the seriousness of this real-life one.
As the story progresses, animated characters sometimes morph into real-life people. By then we’re more used to it, but it still feels like one more imperfect way to conjure events for which there is no actual film.
Tower inevitably touches on other issues, like guns. Dozens of locals, it seems, heard news reports and descended on the campus with their weapons to help the police fire back at the sniper. No one hit him.
Maitland notes briefly at the very end that the Texas Tower massacre was, sadly, not the last mass shooting in America. He lets the viewers connect any dots and do their own sociology.
One policeman admits that when he first heard reports of a shooting, he assumed it must be a revolutionary group like the Black Panthers. In fact, the shooter was anything but.
It’s not his story, though. It’s the story of those who defied him and survived him. Good.