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Weekend Watch: ‘Tower’ Is a Fascinatingly Creative Spin on the Crime Documentary (With A 100% Fresh Rotten Tomatoes Ranking!)

Where to Stream

Tower

Weekend Watch is here for you. Every Friday we’re going to recommend the best of what’s new to rent on VOD or stream for free. It’s your weekend; allow us to make it better. 

What to Stream This Weekend

The Oscar nominees for Best Documentary feature at this most recent Oscars were a remarkably strong quintet, headlined by eventual victor O.J.: Made in America. Just recently, however, the Academy announced a rule-change that would prevent multi-part miniseries like O.J. from competing as a film. It’s hard not to wonder what film might have competed in O.J.‘s stead had the rule been instituted sooner; you’d like to think it would be a movie like Tower, a universally acclaimed, eye-opening, and formally creative endeavor from director Keith Maitland.

The subject of Tower is the 1966 mass shooting in Austin, Texas, when Charles Whitman ascended to the top of the University of Texas at Austin clock tower and began a shooting spree upon the people below. The spree lasted for 96 minutes, killing 16 people in total. It’s one of the most infamous mass killings in United States history, with the image of the “tower sniper” becoming something of an avatar of real-life American horror.

So how best to tell this tale. In this current age of true crime, where we’ve become so obsessed with the idea of becoming the detectives ourselves and cracking the case, it’s almost a revolutionary idea to make a film that has almost nothing to do with the perpetrator at all. Whitman’s story isn’t un-compelling. He was a U.S. Marine, he suffered from mental illness and headaches; tormented by thoughts he couldn’t control and ailments that wouldn’t abate, Whitman murdered his mother, then his wife, then the next morning made his way to the clock tower. There’s certainly material there. But that’s not the story Maitland is interested in telling.

Instead, the story here is about the people on the ground. It’s about the young pregnant woman who was shot and immobilized in the middle of the plaza, unable to get help from anyone for fear that they’d be shot next. It’s about the bystanders who took cover nearby and ultimately decided they had to try and pull off a rescue. It’s about the police officers who came to the scene and ultimately ascended the tower to stop Whitman. It’s about the newsmen who reported from the scene. So many individual stories make up this horrifying day, like a mosaic. And like a mosaic, Maitland assembles different-shaped pieces from many different modes of presentation.

The bulk of the film, and certainly the majority of it as it begins, involves firsthand accounts of the day being performed by actors, and then those performances animated with rotoscoping (think movies like Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly). The actors portray both the reenacted moments of the day as well as the talking-head interviews. It lends an immediacy to the film, as if we’re seeing both the events and the context for those events in real time. The animation both provides a measure of theatrical distance for the audience but it also allows Maitland to paint the environment as accurately or impressionistically as he sees fit.

But then an unexpected thing begins to happen. As the events of the day unfold, the animated reenactors in the talking-head segments begin to give way to clips from the real-life participants giving their present-day accounts. Gradually, this story becomes more of a document. In many instances, we see an actor deliver a line, followed by the real-life person delivering those same words as part of their firsthand account. There’s a kind of temporal magic to seeing them both together: the actors so we can imagine the youth in their faces, or the fear in their eyes; the real-life people so we can see the authenticity with which these haunted accounts are given.

If nothing else, Tower is a reminder that there need not be anything approaching a “formula” for true crime. There are hundreds of ways to tell thousands of stories. What Tower does is tell a very famous story in a way that feels fresh and emotionally raw.

Tower is currently streaming on Netflix.

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