- Movie Rating -

Tower (2016)

| October 3, 2016

The times are sadly appropriate for a documentary like Tower.  At a moment in our history when rampant shootings in Orlando Florida, Aurora Colorado and the bombing in Boston are reminding us that domestic terrorism is alive and well, it is important to remember that it is not a new problem.  2016 marks the 50th anniversary of an event that might have come from the climate of that time or even the current one.  On August 1, 1966, an engineering student and former Marine named Charles J. Whitman climbed to the 26th floor of the observation tower at The University of Texas at Austin where, armed with several weapons, began firing on several people on the street and on the quad.  In 90 minutes he had wounded 32 people and killed 14, including an unborn child, before being killed himself by local law enforcement.  The cause of Whitman’s rampage, it was said, was post-traumatic stress disorder.

The story itself might make for a great and challenging documentary.  What were the events that led to Whitman’s rampage?  What can be learned from those events?  Unfortunately Tower mutes those questions as it tries to deal with the events of August 1, 1966 as a narrative thriller.  Director Keith Maitland makes the key mistake of trying to recreate the events through animated recreations and interviews by actors reading the words of the survivors.  The day is recreated to the hilt with ordinary people going to classes or simply going about their business.  Then the shooting starts, several are killed, many more are injured.  We see people walking along, hit by bullets and falling to the ground while the moment of impact is punched up for effect.  All of this is animated in a visually striking style that builds the story as a thriller.

This is the wrong approach for a documentary because it doesn’t document, it recreates so that we get a sense of the animators and the director and not the survivors themselves.  When someone is shot and killed there is an impact that lets us feel it as we might in a Jason Bourne movie.  That leaves us feeling uncomfortable in the fact that a person’s moment of death is being played for cinematic thrills.

The interview style is off-putting as well.  We hear interviews from actors playing the survivors and then, very late in the film, Maitland switches to the real survivors who finally speak in their own words.  Obvious question: Why weren’t the real survivors telling their own story from the beginning?  Why were actors employed to play younger versions of the actual survivors and read their words when the real survivors were obviously willing and able to speak for themselves?

True, the film tries to be very human and it is hard not the feel the plight of a pregnant woman who was wounded and forced to lay on the hot sidewalk for hours for fear of being killed by the sniper.  And it is hard not the feel for a local police officer whose took it upon himself to climb the tower and eliminate this maniac before more people got hurt.  But there is a distance between us and the people involved.  The animation, the recreation and the actors keep us from feeling the real power of these events in a real way.

At the end, the movie feels like a rush job.  Very little is said about Whitman and his motivations and the movie rushes to a conclusion leaves you asking some key questions.  Again, what were the events that led to Whitman’s rampage?  What can be learned from those events?  How can we tie them with the recent events in Orlando, Boston and Colorado?  The fact that the movie plays these tragic events as an animated thriller undercuts the reality that should have marked the poignancy of these events.  We feel the pulse-pounding power of every minute but that’s only because it is beefed up for effect.  Tower is a very entertaining movie, and that’s its biggest flaw.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2016) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary