Keith Maitland artfully threads a narrow needle with his documentary “Tower,” an extraordinary true-crime re-creation that could have easily come off as exploitative. Maitland’s experimental approach to a tricky subject leaves viewers with a deeper understanding of a terrible moment in American history.
“Tower” concerns the events of Aug. 1, 1966, in Austin, when ex-Marine sharpshooter Charles Whitman barricaded himself in the University of Texas’ Main Building observation deck and started firing at random passersby. In just 90 minutes, he killed 14 people and wounded dozens more.
Maitland peppers his movie with archival news footage and audio from the day, along with more modern interviews. He supplements these with animated reenactments, letting actors provide the voices for the victims’ younger selves.
That dash of style may strike some as disrespectfully attention-grabbing, but it actually shifts the emphasis of the story from one mentally disturbed murderer to the people he terrorized. “Tower” captures their fear and confusion, as well as their uncommon bravery.
Maitland evokes the atmosphere of 1966, from the music and fashions to the way some immediately assumed the shootings were related to the nation’s racial and political unrest.
But the director’s most powerful aesthetic choice is his eventual shift from animated actors to real people, as the story moves from the day itself to the aftermath. The witnesses’ words bring home the point of “Tower,” which seeks to honor what these people went through by sharing it, honestly and vividly.
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena