‘Tower’: Documentary is powerful examination of America’s first modern-day mass shooting

“Tower,” which opened in limited release on Oct. 12, is a powerful examination of a dark milestone in American history — the nation’s first mass school shooting, which took place from the University of Texas main building tower in 1966. The film is timely as ever on the fiftieth anniversary of the event that claimed 16 lives and wounded three dozen others.

“Tower” picked up three nominations for the inaugural Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, placing it formidably in the Oscar race for Best Documentary Feature. Executive-produced by actor Luke Wilson and seven-time News & Documentary Emmy winner Meredith Viera, the film is an almost real-time recounting of the 96-minute massacre from the harrowing perspective of its survivors (and touching only fleetingly on the psyche of sniper Charles Whitman). It concludes with a newsreel montage that frames the event as the first in an ongoing series of senseless civilian massacres, including the school shooting that served as the subject of 2002’s “Bowling for Columbine,” which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

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The BFCA nominated “Tower” for Best Documentary Feature, Best Feature Director and Most Innovative Documentary. Although “Tower” is two bids short of “Gleason,” “O.J.: Made in America” and “13th,” those three were eligible in many more categories. “Tower” was precluded from races limited to television broadcasts, first-time directors, original songs and specific genres. And “Tower” was nominated over those three contenders in the broad-based Most Innovative Documentary race, which came courtesy of the film’s ever-shifting esthetic.

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As he did in his 2009 documentary “The Eyes of Me,” director Keith Maitland employs Rotoscope motion-capture technology to animate both interviews and dramatic reenactments. The animation varies from color to black-and-white, from backdrops that are opaque to detailed to live-action, reminiscent of 1988’s quadruple Oscar-winning “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Other parts of the film are live-action entirely, from talking heads to archival footage.

At the Oscars, “Tower” would follow in the footsteps of  2015 Best Documentary Short nominee “Last Day of Freedom” and 2009 Best Animated Feature nominee “Waltz with Bashir.”  And the film’s unique approach should give Maitland a leg up at the Directors Guild Awards. The guild has often opted for stylized fare with hands-on directing over more conventional presentations that ultimately won the Oscar, such as “Cartel Land” over “Amy” in 2015 and “The Square” in 2013 when it snubbed “20 Feet from Stardom.”

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“Tower” premiered in March at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, where it was the only film to bag multiple trophies: the Audience Award for Best Documentary, the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary and the Lone Star Award for Best Texas Film. It has since screened at several other festivals, including the 35th Vancouver International Film Festival where this writer saw it. Its score on Metacritic is 90 and Rotten Tomatoes sums up the critical consensus thusly: “‘Tower’ probes into a painful chapter of American history with sensitivity and grace — and revisits its events from a valuable new perspective.”

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