“Tower” Review (***½)

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“Tower” mixes animation with archival footage.

“Tower” follows the tragic story of the 1966 University of Texas at Austin sniper shooting. This documentary brilliantly juxtaposes live action film, radio archives, and animations to parallel the narration of both survivors and witnesses to the event.

One thing I had difficulty remembering was how unheard of school shootings were at the time. It’s almost an unsettling blast from the past into just a relevant presence, but one important aspect of this film is that it does not ‘glorify’ the killer. “Tower” truly focuses on the heroes and survivors, while honoring the victims.

“Tower” makes curious artistic choices in its visuals. The roughly 80-minute runtime is full of historical footage, new animation, and live action interviews—all intriguing and well-balanced. However, the neat difference is in the decision to layer live footage with animation. A few of the scenes mesh reality and ‘cartoon’ to fill the gaps lost in the time it took cameras to arrive at the scene. In order for the collage style to truly deliver a viable suspension of disbelief, the filmmakers impressively craft the necessary soundscape. Audience members may find themselves unsettled or nervous, despite a large majority of this film being the comic style animation, but the sounds put one in the moment with the students, faculty, officers, and passersby.

Color is another strong trait of this film. At points, it is used in a way to evoke peace and moments of escape from the terror; peaceful memories, acceptance of fate, or relief. Then at other times the screen flashes red at the response of a bullet wound. It’s beautiful and eerie the way the director pulls viewers through emotional hoops to fully grasp what it was like to be in Austin, Texas on that hot summer day.

The musical score aids to amp and ease the audience throughout the film; intense silences draw agonizing moments that never seem to end—for characters as well as audience members. However, the hip 1950s and 60s tunes remind us that this was a largely youthful campus that was accosted on August 1, 1966, and that these children experienced loss and terror beyond their years.

These emotions are not lost in the story. The recall of the event is told through each person’s point of view in a near-minute-match of the actual account. There are tears, smiles, and utter dismay as the animations bring the raw experience to life on screen.

“Tower” presents an engaging and new take on visual documentary filmmaking, but part of the animation was too jerky and seemed at points more like a story board and less like a finished film, potentially even disorienting viewers. Beyond that, this tale is one that needs to be told in a time of common mass murders. People need to feel the terror brought to the campus and admire the heroic actions taken by officers and civilians alike.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

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