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‘Tower’: Gripping documentary draws from a horrific shooting

“Tower” uses animation to re-create the 1966 shootings from a perch high above the University of Texas. | KINO LORBER

Today’s college-American has never known a time when campus and school shootings haven’t been a tragically consistent element in the fabric of society.

It wasn’t always that way. There was a time, some 50 years ago, when such a thing was unthinkable — until the moment it wasn’t, and dozens of lives were forever impacted.

On a blistering hot August day in 1966, a 25-year-old man took the elevator to the top of the University of Texas Tower and opened fire on students, faculty, passersby and eventually law enforcement officers.

Over a 96-minute period, 46 people were shot and 14 died in what is considered the first mass shooting in modern American history.

Keith Maitland’s “Tower” is a stunningly powerful and gripping documentary, a triumphant blend of modern animation and editing techniques blending with traditional-style archival newsreel footage and talking-head interviews with some of the survivors of that horrific day.

The rotoscoped animation brings a surreal, almost dreamlike waking memory to the events of that day. Maitland makes the brilliant choice to use younger actors (appropriate to the age of the participants at the time of the shootings) to tell their stories via animated “interviews,” and then segues to present-day, live-action visits with some of the survivors, police officers, civilian gunmen and reporters nearly a half-century after the fact.

It is one of the most unforgettable pieces of work you’ll see this year, or any other year.

Most of “Tower” plays more like a animated dramatic feature film, as we relive the shootings through the eyes of the pregnant Claire Wilson (Violett Beane), who is one of the first shooting victims and spends an hour and a half trying to lay motionless and play dead on the sizzling sidewalk with her dead boyfriend just a few feet away; officers Houston McCoy (Blair Jackson) and Ramiro Martinez (Louie Arnette), who recount their efforts to take down the sniper; a 17-year-old named John Fox (Seamus Bolivar-Ochoa), who takes it upon himself to try to rescue a wounded victim; Rita Starpattern (Josephine McAdam), who in an incredible act of bravery ran out to the pregnant Claire and lay down next to her, engaging her in conversation to try to keep her awake and alive; and many others.

They are a remarkable group of people. You will be moved and inspired by their humility and their humanity as they tell their stories.

In the last 20 minutes or so, “Tower” becomes more of a traditional documentary, with emphasis on the survivors as they are today. The timing is perfect. We have “met” them through the animated re-enactments and the interviews with younger versions of themselves; now we see them in real life, older people who made it through a horrific 96 minutes to live many a decade.

Maitland was inspired to make “Tower” after reading a 2006 oral history of 1966 shootings in Texas Monthly. According to an article in Rolling Stone, “the director shot the re-enactments mostly in his own backyard in Austin using a 40-foot palm tree as a stand-in for the tower. After taking photos and matching film angles on the campus with his iPhone, Maitland handed over all the material to animation studio Minnow Mountain,” which did the rotoscoping.

The result is a remarkable film that deserves an Academy Award nomination for best documentary. The result is a film you can’t afford to miss.

★★★★

Kino Lorber presents a documentary directed by Keith Maitland. No MPAA rating. Running time: 82 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.