'Tower' is a well-crafted doc that deliberately leaves out a major detail

  • A bystander rushes to help Claire Wilson in "Tower."

    A bystander rushes to help Claire Wilson in "Tower." Courtesy of Tower Documentary-PBS

By Hank Stuever
The Washington Post
Posted2/14/2017 6:00 AM

Keith Maitland's "Tower," a creatively envisioned but intentionally incomplete look at the 1966 University of Texas sniper attack that left 16 dead and dozens wounded, was the buzz of film festivals last year and came close to getting an Oscar nomination.

The film, which airs Tuesday night on most PBS stations as part of the "Independent Lens" series, is technically masterful, even though, as a work of historical narrative, it disregards a major part of the story.


It blends rotoscopic animation with archival TV news and radio reports to re-create that sweltering August afternoon in Austin when Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old former Marine and part-time student, climbed to the top of the campus' beloved Main Building (known as the Tower) and essentially ushered in a dark, ongoing period in American history as the first of many unhinged killers who have opened fire in public places.

"Tower" isn't all that interested in the UT shooting's sociological impact, however. It leads first and foremost with its considerable heart, deeply focused on the vivid memories of a survivor, some witnesses and one of the police officers who bravely faced down Whitman on the parapet and shot him dead.

The rotoscopic animation technique (seen also in Richard Linklater's "Waking Life," Brett Morgen's documentary "Chicago 10" and elsewhere) removes the usual stiffness that comes with re-enactments, giving the film a terrifying sense of urgency and precision, as well as an artistic touch that portrays the sleepy mid-1960s college town with fetishistic detail.

Among Maitland's subjects is Claire Wilson (now Claire Wilson James), who was 18 and pregnant that day. She was walking across campus with her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, after their summer-session anthropology class. Wilson was the first person struck by one of Whitman's bullets while crossing a paved plaza; Eckman was second. He died instantly, while she lay wounded on the concrete in the blistering heat for more than an hour. She was rescued by a 17-year-old freshman, John Fox, who, with other young men, finally raced out to the middle of the open courtyard to carry her (and Eckman's body) to safe cover.

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Claire Wilson, who survived the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas, is depicted in "Tower."
Claire Wilson, who survived the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas, is depicted in "Tower." - Courtesy of Tower Documentary-PBS

Now in their late 60s, Wilson and Fox recall for Maitland how frosty the community's emotional response to the tragedy was in 1966. Classes at UT were canceled only long enough to mop up the blood -- no vigils, no grief counseling, no closure. Although the shooting still remains a much-discussed subject in Austin, catharsis went ignored until last summer, when the university finally dedicated a memorial next to the tower.

In an interview with TV critics last month, Maitland said "Tower" is intended to honor those who survived and the lawmen who shot the killer. It's no accident, therefore, that his movie basically leaves Whitman out, with nary of a mention of the sniper's full name or background, nor any of the inconclusive theories about why he snapped. It also doesn't mention that the night and morning before he climbed the tower, Whitman separately murdered his mother and wife.

Maitland said he had done all that research, but to examine Whitman's perspective in any detail could take an entire movie, which had been done before. Instead, Maitland made a movie that looks at the tower shootings "from the ground up, instead of the top down." Everyone knows the name Charles Whitman, but can anyone name the victims?


Fair enough, but this decision turns "Tower" into a deliberate failure as a serious documentary, which might be one reason it didn't get an Oscar nomination (even though it made the Academy's shortlist of documentaries under consideration). In a surplus of empathy and attentiveness to his art form, Maitland tossed out a big chunk of the story.

Others will certainly disagree -- in this day and age, it's become increasingly popular to argue against the slightest mention of mass killers in the media, as a way to withhold the attention or glory they may have sought, and also to deprive potential killers of a role model. Similar arguments are made about all sorts of things people find distasteful -- whether it's putting one of the Boston Marathon bombers on the cover of Rolling Stone or documenting the inane ramblings and tweets of a new president. We don't get anywhere by looking away from things that frighten or disgust us.

It's true that journalists, authors, songwriters and screenwriters have contributed mightily to the enduring mystery of Whitman's motivations, building his story up into a creepy part of Texan (and American) mythos. It's also true that in 1966, our culture lacked a certain expertise in grief, survival and psychological aftermath. Nevertheless, "Tower" would have been much better with another 10 or 12 minutes of reporting what is known about the sniper.

Houston McCoy, one of the Austin police officers who killed the sniper behind the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas, is depicted in "Tower."
Houston McCoy, one of the Austin police officers who killed the sniper behind the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas, is depicted in "Tower." - Courtesy of Tower Documentary-PBS

But don't take my word for it. Even Claire Wilson James -- having recounted for Maitland every last thing she can remember about the shooting and having described her grief for her lost baby and lost love -- would like to know more about Whitman. He fascinates her. She's read plenty about him and even talked to his aunt about his abusive upbringing and racist views.

"I would have loved to have talked to him," Wilson James told TV critics during the same interview session with Maitland. "Let him know that, you know, I'm so sorry for what he went through. ... Just put my arms around him and tell him somehow that he doesn't have to be that way, that he can let go of it."

Viewers of "Tower" can't be blamed for having the same impulse. Who was he?

No matter how many years later, no matter how cool your animation technique might be, "Nobody" somehow feels like the wrong answer to that question.


"Independent Lens: Tower" (90 minutes) airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 14, on PBS.

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