August 1, 1966: a gunman opens fire from the clock tower of the University of Texas. No one can get near him. He’d hold not only the campus but much of the surrounding city of Austin hostage. Bodies lay in an open court yard, a pregnant woman bleeding out, but no one could risk rescue. The sniper had vantage and advantage, and the shooting went on forever – 90 long minutes in real time, but a lifetime for those who lay bleeding, and those who watched in fear from the sidelines.
The documentary Tower tells of the people there that day – the students, the injured, the reporters, the cops, the citizens. Those listening on the radio knew that the local police didn’t have weapons that could reach the clock tower, so lay people took up their rifles and rushed to the scene. When a couple of cops finally did breach the clock tower, they had to duck not only the shooter’s bullets, but those of all the well-meaning “helpers.”
It’s a beautiful documentary. My words will fail me. If you have Netflix, only watching it can do it justice. Director Keith Maitland uses animation to bring the events to life, to put us in the shoes of survivors. Tower is a portrait of courage. It’s also agonizing in its recriminations, doubts, and guilt. It’s very human. The story is told with grace and sensitivity, with new perspective and the benefit of time. But no amount of time has erased the trauma of that day, and this documentary reveals how many have buried the worst memories of that day.
I doubt if the shooting at UT was the first U.S. school shooting, but it certainly wasn’t the last. In that kind of historical context, it’s uncomfortable to measure just how long it’s been since this, the most American of crimes, has been allowed to gain epidemic proportions, virtually unchecked. The fact that there is still today no memorial for those who died, or those who survived, that day at the University of Texas, reminds us of the lurid headlines school shootings inspire, but within days, weeks at most, the tragedy is swept under a rug, not to be revisited until the next shooter opens fire. Perhaps a little remembrance is exactly what is needed. Tower remembers.