It’s hard to imagine a time when mass shootings were not a regular part of our national diet as Americans. Though I was shielded from the horrors of Columbine, ever since Virginia Tech, the country feels like it’s been on a treadmill of horrors. We even have a routine that’s so predictable that it can be satirized by The Onion.
Keith Maitland’s largely animated documentary “Tower” takes us back to 1966, when a shooter’s bullet did more than cause a momentary pause along with a call for thoughts and prayers. The film takes a look at how a sniper punctured the psyche of a town from his perch atop the bell tower at the University of Texas in Austin. It’s worth noting that the documentary has nothing to do with the shooter, whose name might not even be mentioned. Certainly his motivations are never analyzed, his actions never flimsily justified or excused. This is a film about the innocents he killed, the survivors he scarred, and the campus he changed.
“Tower” makes shootings shocking again by putting us in the shoes of those who experienced the day. Through the technique of rotoscoped animation, Maitland makes archival (and a smidgen of recreated) footage and audio feel vibrant and alive. He clears away the mothballs from history, making it feel both contemporary and immediate. We connect with the panic of experiencing what it feels like when violence feels appropriately senseless and unjust – almost like having to learn about your first mass shooting once more.
I very nearly ended after that last paragraph but stopped myself before publishing. This overview of the film sounded almost unspeakably grim. While Maitland does not shy away from the darkness, his embrace of small acts of courage and monumental acts of resilience reminded me of an all-time favorite quote from Mr. Rogers: “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.” B+ /