You may not see a more emotionally shattering film this year than Keith Maitland's documentary Tower, a you-are-there reconstruction of the harrowing 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas at Austin in which 25-year-old former Marine and engineering student Charles Whitman planted himself in the school's clock tower and shot 49 people, killing 16. Through the recollections of witnesses and victims, the film simultaneously builds a present-tense narrative while also portraying the terrifying resilience of memory and trauma.
Did I mention it's animated? Maitland has recreated the event with actors and archival footage, and then rotoscoped it. He has also taken interviews with survivors and witnesses, restaged them with actors playing these people's younger selves and then rotoscoped those. Technically speaking, most of what's onscreen has been staged and animated, even though it's all essentially true. Could that call into question Tower's status as a "real" documentary? Who knows -- we live in interesting times, with the putative boundary between narrative and nonfiction coming ever closer to being wiped away entirely. More importantly, who cares about labels when a film is this devastating?
The animation depicting the attack is effective -- even beautiful -- but not manipulative. But Tower's most moving moments come in its final act, as Maitland cuts to the latter-day reflections of these survivors — slowly slipping away from the animated, younger faces to actual footage of these people as they are today (or, in a couple of cases, as they were not long ago). It's a stylized touch, but not a frivolous one, for it is in these scenes that we fully understand the ongoing trauma of the event.