Mass school shootings were unheard of before Aug. 1, 1966, day when, at the University of Texas at Austin, a sniper on an observation deck fired for 96 minutes at passersby.
Sixteen people died and three dozen were wounded. The attack was truly shocking.
Fifty years later, in far less innocent times, “Tower” re-creates the tragedy with suspense and meaning.
Emmy-winning director Keith Maitland (“The Eyes of Me”) combines archival material, recent interviews and rotoscopic animation (as in Richard Linklater’s “A Waking Life”) in this big-screen nonfiction thriller and character tapestry.
Partly based on a Texas Monthly article, the film presents the experiences of about a dozen figures directly involved in the Austin incident — survivors, cops, witnesses. Their 1966 selves are played by actors, whose scenes have been animated. Their dialogue is real, taken from the people they are portraying.
Claire Wilson, a pregnant anthropology student, is walking with her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, when a bullet hits the pair. Wilson survives but lies on the ground, bleeding.
Aleck Hernandez Jr., a paperboy riding his bicycle, also gets hit. Allen Crum, a university bookstore manager, helps save his life.
Another hero is John Fox, an incoming freshman who sees the pregnant Wilson lying on the sizzling pavement. He and friend James Love, at immense risk of being shot, rush to Wilson and carry her to safety.
Police officers Ramiro Martinez and Houston McCoy make their way up the tower to end the shooting. A deputized Crum accompanies them.
Covering the action is journalist Neal Spelce, reporting from his transmitter-outfitted station wagon.
That’s just a nutshell account of what transpires. In between the plot points, people hide behind trees to avoid being hit; gun-toting vigilantes unproductively shoot up a storm; and more.
The film loses steam in the final third, which focuses on the aftermath. Less compelling material ranges from survivor accounts of post-traumatic stress to a linking of the Austin incident to shootings at Columbine and elsewhere.
Overall, though, this is gripping nonfiction cinema containing thrills and a point.
With mass shootings now common news, Maitland, who attended the University of Texas, makes an innocence-shattering moment of 50 years ago feel freshly significant.
The action — the scene where Fox and Love rescue Wilson is particularly memorable — is as compelling as the stuff of most Hollywood thrillers.
With its fluid look, the animation efficiently captures the siege, in which everything is uncertain and the camera is constantly moving.
The archival material adds credibility. The incessant sound of gunfire keeps the unease high.
Never exploitive, the film is interested in human faces rather than gore. The killer (25-year-old Charles Whitman) is barely seen.
Among the post-siege material, conversations with Wilson and other survivors stand out. Seeing them in the flesh (they previously appeared only in animated form) is fulfilling, solidifying this wonderfully creative film’s status as a true documentary.
Starring Claire Wilson, Ramiro Martinez, Houston McCoy, Neal Spelce
Directed by Keith Maitland
Running time 1 hour, 22 minutes
Note The film screens at the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley.