MPAA Rating: NR | Rating: ★★★★★
Release year: 2016
Genre: Animated, Documentary Director: Keith Maitland

A film of immense emotional heft, Tower serves as a formal exercise in collective memory, a memorial recording both the horrors of human depravity as well as the redemptive courage which inevitably emerges out of such horrors. Brisk yet meditative, this animated documentary is a paradox and a parable playing out on screen, both in its formal elements and the story it tells. In its retelling of tragic mass shooting which occurred on the campus of the University of Texas in August of 1966, Tower focuses not the violence and terror–though that is certainly present–and instead emphasizes the humanity of the victims as they remember that day.

Tower‘s central story is Claire (portrayed in the reenactment by Violett Beane), a young university student who was eight months pregnant when she and her boyfriend, Tom Eckmann, were both shot by the gunman perched in the clock tower in the midst of the university’s campus. Claire’s story is not just what the content of what happened that day, but an exploration of her life–what she was thinking and feeling, her hopes and dreams, her relationships, her future. Later the film tells Claire’s story after the shooting as she grieved and recovered the people who were lost. Claire is one of many stories Tower shares, all with pathos and a sense of genuine grief–these are stories of confession and healing, a moment of catharsis for the story-tellers themselves. One man reveals that he’d never really spoken about the events after that day; another laments how he had lost touch with a cousin who was present when he was shot, and thanks the filmmakers for prompting their reunion by revisiting the story. In this, Tower reveals that fear and grief are overcome not by avoidance or apathy, but by entering into the journey of pain, sharing our burdens with others as we allow the gift of confession to bring healing and wholeness.

The film’s aesthetic is created by rotoscoping–an animation technique which allows an artist to trace over live-action footage, either inserting animated sections or creating entire frames of animation based on the real-life film. The technique at-once distances the audience from the events–we are seeing animations of actors portraying what happened on that day in 1966–and allows for an empathetic depth that might not have been possible through the usual filmmaking formats. If we were seeing these scenes reenacted using actors and regular filmmaking techniques, akin to The Thin Blue Line or Man on Wire, it either would have felt inauthentic, or perhaps would have been far too traumatizing an experience. When the film first reveals a glimpse of the people’s faces about halfway through the film, it startled me with a sudden rush of emotion. We also see actual footage from that day, shot–I hate that word in this context–by local reporters documenting the scene. This mashup of animation, footage, and new interviews with those involved make a unique composition that is at once a commemoration as well as an affecting work of artistic merit. It’s the best animated film of 2016; it’s also the best documentary. It might even be the best film overall.

Just as this year’s The Witness features a moment of reenactment in order for its central character to undergo healing from his grief, Tower serves as a therapeutic moment for many of its central characters. This aspect of the filmmaking process allowed people to reunite, to confess, to remember; it is salvific in function, and we in the audience are witnesses to these moments of redemption and forgiveness. So many films in 2016 were focused on the grieving process in the wake of a sudden tragedy or death: Manchester by the Sea; The Edge of Seventeen; The Innocents; Captain Fantastic; Arrival; The Witness; even Love & Friendship. Yet Tower might be the most affecting, not only as it navigates the grief of characters recovering from the event, but as it celebrates the courage of self-sacrifice. There were civilians that day who ran forward into what must have been certain death in order to be with those who had been shot, to offer comfort and save them from the situation. It’s a retelling of the Good Samaritan story, and a bit of an ethical Rorschach test, a “what would you do?” in such a dire and urgent situation. One character states this as much, saying that the day separated those who were overcome by fear from those who took the path of selfless courage. You can tell that the people recounting the story were genuinely transformed by those 96 minutes in 1966. I, too, feel like I’ve been transformed by this 96-minute film, reminded of the goodness in people in the darkest of circumstances, and encouraged to be a person of peace in this world. As Fred Rogers once said about responding to tragedy: “Always look for the helpers…because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

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