Tower – Review (****)

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Keith Maitland’s mesmerising documentary merges shattering frontline testimony with arresting animation to create a one-of-a-kind examination of Charles Whitman’s 1966 shooting spree at the University of Texas.

Though Whitman’s motives are sure to be of interest – or at least curiosity – to just about everyone viewing, Maitland tastefully shifts the focus almost solely onto the victims, with the surviving participants providing eyewitness testimony, creatively re-imagined by cross-cutting younger actors reciting their experiences and the present-day subjects themselves. There’s a certain justice in denying the shooter agency as a subject, as anyone intrigued enough by his story has a lengthy Wikipedia page at their disposal.

Covering a wide base of perspectives, Tower captures the chaotic entirety of that grim summer’s day, from those poor souls instantly snuffed out to, in arguably the most discomforting account, a pregnant young student who remained clung to the hot concrete after suffering through one shot, believing another bullet might follow at any moment.

In a fashion distinctly reminiscent of 2008’s jaw-dropping documentary Waltz with Bashir, Maitland makes incredibly potent use of the interplay between animated recreation and real-life vignette, increasing in frequency until the third act largely gives itself over to the subjects in their present states, free of pretense and conceit.

Rather than linger on hand-wringing over the killer’s motives, Tower serves as a highly imaginative tribute to lives both lost and irreparably altered by that one fateful day. As horrific as it was, it clearly brought out the best in many of the people on the ground at the time, and is as such a fascinating and unexpectedly emotional testament to the human spirit.

Gorgeously animated and edited for maximum dramatic impact, Tower is both one of the year’s best documentaries and straight-up best films, a provocative engagement with the potential of the documentary medium, not merely to inform but to inspire and to move as well.

****

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