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More True Crime Documentaries Should Be Like Tower

Tower is a 2016 documentary about the 1966 Charles Whitman shootings on the University of Texas campus in Austin. Whitman, a former U.S. Marine, killed both his mother, Margaret E. Whitman, and his wife Kathy in the early hours of the first of August 1966. He left a diary behind that detailed his life and his struggle with trying to break away from the abusive legacy that was left behind by his father.

However, this was in direct opposition with a note he left behind in which he infamously requested that an autopsy be performed on his corpse to try and find a cause for his violence and the intense headaches he experienced throughout his life. Despite Whitman’s awareness that his actions seemed to have no rational basis, he packed numerous firearms and headed for the campus. He set himself up in the University’s tower 28th-floor observation deck where he began a reign of terror that lasted around 90 minutes total.

Tower begins with the start of the shootings, the resulting story pieced together from accounts of the people who lived through the ordeal. However, because the on-spot media we are used to currently when a tragedy occurs did not exist in the 1960s the director, Keith Maitland, decided to utilize animation. This animation, called rotoscopic, looks insanely realistic and catches the same shadows and movements that real-life filming would capture.

While this approach may sound strange for a documentary, it helps viewers connect with the rotating narrators and convey that this was an event that happened to real people. The connection that the rotoscopic animation creates is unique and it serves to pay tribute to the victims and the survivors of that day alike.

Tower constantly switches between victims of the shooting, responding police officers, regular civilians that lent aid, and a reporter that live broadcasted during the entire ordeal. By using a variety of perspectives, we are able to get a complete picture of how these events happened in real time. This kind of storytelling is really clever, layering each of the survivors’ perspectives together to capture the horror of the event. Tower becomes quite compelling in its use of all these techniques because it quickly erases the 50-year gap between them and the present day.

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Furthermore, because Tower is extremely victim-centric, it doesn’t make the faux paus of similar documentaries by glorifying the killer. In fact, Tower never shows an animation or even a photo of Charles Whitman, only briefly naming him at the end when he is killed. Even the animation of the police gunning him down only shows his bottom half, not his face or a likeness.

These obvious choices were both striking and gripping because the director was drawing a line in the sand between monster and idol. Too often we find ourselves obsessed with mass murderers or serial killers, but this ideation comes at a cost. We easily forget what is important. We forget that Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Charles Whitman are all murderers who stole innocent lives and they should be condemned, not vindicated.

Tower emphasizes this point by not portraying him in animation form alongside his victims and constantly keeping any depiction of his shooting as puffs of smoke clouded in the shadows of the university tower. By only seeing the puffs of the rifle Whitman was using, Tower keeps him as a mysterious, dark force that must be stopped by the deliberately animated people who were the witnesses, heroes, and survivors of the ordeal.

While it is typically not the intent of true crime documentaries to validate cold-blooded murderers, it is an easy misstep to focus on the details of the fascinating aspects of the mind of Charles Manson, for example, than analyze the ordeal of Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, or Rosemary La Bianca.

Tower not only honors the victims and survivors, but also portrays the terror that Whitman caused. So, by accomplishing the latter and not showing Whitman/barely mentioning him, Tower also condemns Whitman’s actions simply by not giving him screen time. It is up to the viewer to seek out the man behind the puffs of smoke and that choice is remarkable.

Overall, Tower is an outstanding documentary for not only all the reasons above, but also because it takes the time to breakdown the 96 minutes of Whitman’s reign of terror into a captivating, emotional narrative. I cannot recommend this movie enough as Tower conveys tension, helplessness, fear, and will make viewers misty-eyed at the raw truth of what happened on August 1st, 1966.

Tower is currently available on Netflix.

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Written by Syl
Syl is a professional criminologist who shamelessly spends her time listening to true crime podcasts, watching horror films, and bringing real life horror to her written pieces.
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