Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Maitland keeps his balance superbly and ensures that this telling has the force it needs."

On the first of August 1966, a Florida-born ex-marine, who had already murdered his mother and his wife and arranged for the adoption of his dog, took seven guns and more than 700 rounds of ammunition into the University of Texas clock tower in Austin. At 11:48am he opened fire, shooting people at random as they passed by below. At the time it was the deadliest mass killing to take place at any educational institution in America.

The first person to be shot was 18-year-old, Claire Wilson, so it's fitting that her account is the one that frames Keith Maitland's documentary. Describing how she felt lying on the burning hot ground, afraid for her unborn child and for her boyfriend Tom, who had fallen beside her, she provides a timeline for the film, helping us to understand what an hour and 36 minutes of shooting might feel like. The slowness, the emptiness as would-be rescuers were caught in a standoff and she felt her life ebbing away are a vital part of the story, and Maitland's ability to communicate this whilst keeping up the tension is central to making this film work. It could easily have been exploitative, over-familiar or too dry, but Maitland keeps his balance superbly and ensures that this telling has the force it needs.

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Part of how this is achieved is by excluding the killer, who is barely mentioned at any point during the film (which lasts precisely as long as the shootings did). His victims had no idea who he was at the time and, ultimately, his name and his motives made not the slightest difference to their experience. There is, then, no fetishisation of his actions and no attempt to justify or understand them, beyond a brief statement from Claire, at the end, explaining her feelings about him. This film belongs to the victims and to those who risked their lives to save others. In doing so, it allows the viewer to consider the psychological impact of an event like this in a way that is surprisingly rare.

Part of the way Maitland connects the viewer with the survivors is through the use of rotoscoping, which gives his recreations of events a dream-like quality. As various individuals become more established, he briefly intercuts images of them recorded at the time, then lets us see them as they are today. This invites us to engage with the film as an artefact constructed from intersections of memory, forensic observation and newsreel footage. The latter elements emerges later in the story, there having been no cameras around at the time. Its fuzzy black and white might have a distancing effect but by then we have already go to know some of the people involved and engage with them as bright, modern figures; past and preset are neatly drawn together as we are reminded that, for all of those who survived, the trauma didn't end when the shooting did.

There are stories of remarkable heroism here, alongside accounts of people discovering that they were cowards - something entirely understandable in the circumstances. Police officers remember their utter confusion and their amazement when members of the public stepped up to take action. Expanding beyond the stories of those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, we learn about the amateur gun enthusiasts who heard what was happening on the radio and rushed to the scene to pepper the tower with bullets, limiting what the shooter could do. The local police didn't have guns that could shoot high enough. There was no plan for dealing with such an event. One is reminded of the words of Philip Larkin's famous war poem: never such innocence again.

Intensely detailed and delivered with great care, Tower is a film that really packs a punch. For all the anecdotes that give it context, such as Claire wondering is she was caught up in an alien invasion, this could be anywhere at any time. It's the human experience that shines through and, surprisingly, gives the film an optimistic character. Although there have been others like him, the killer was just one man, and history does not belong to him.

Reviewed on: 20 Nov 2016
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Tower packshot
A rotoscope reconstruction of the first mediatised school massacre in the United States.
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Director: Keith Maitland

Starring: Violett Beane, Louie Arnette, Blair Jackson, Monty Muir, Chris Doubek, Reece Everett Ryan, Josephine McAdam, Aldo Ordoñez, Vicky Illk, John Fitch, Karen Davidson, Jeremy Brown, Séamus Bolivar-Ochoa, Cole Bresnehen, Timothy Lucas

Year: 2016

Runtime: 83 minutes

Country: US

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