Tower Debuts on PBS and Revisits Austin Massacre

Eighteen-year-old college freshman Claire Wilson was eight months pregnant when she became the first victim of a sniper on the campus of the University of Texas, Austin, on August 1, 1966. Her ordeal is documented in TOWER. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

Eighteen-year-old college freshman Claire Wilson was eight months pregnant when she became the first victim of a sniper on the campus of the University of Texas, Austin, on August 1, 1966. Her ordeal is documented in TOWER. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

“If I could see the top of the tower, then the sniper could see me,” says Ray Martinez, former Austin, Texas, patrolman, as he recalls the chain of events that thrust him into the line of fire during America’s first mass school shooting.

On August 1, 1966, surrounded by an arsenal of guns and ammunition, a former Marine hunkered down on the observation deck of the iconic clock tower at the University of Texas, Austin. During his 96-minute siege of the campus in the heat of the midday sun, the sniper shot university students, staffers and passersby at random below, including a pregnant young student, her unborn child, and a paperboy making his daily deliveries. The sniper’s bullets ricocheted off campus statues and pillars, and his victims fell on the scorching campus mall pavement, where most remained until the siege ended. Sixteen people lost their lives that day, and more than 30 were wounded.

Claire Wilson and Tom Eckman were the first two victims of a sniper perched on the observation deck of the University of Texas clock tower in 1966. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

Claire Wilson and Tom Eckman were the first two victims of a sniper perched on the observation deck of the University of Texas clock tower in 1966. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

Fifty years later, filmmaker Keith Maitland revisits this shocking tragedy in his new feature-length documentary, Tower. Following its critically acclaimed film festival and theatrical run, Tower makes its broadcast debut on the PBS series, Independent Lens, tonight, Tuesday, February 14, 2017, 10:00-11:30 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.)

Director/producer/editor Keith Maitland brings a fresh eye and unique blend of storytelling to Tower, relying heavily on animation to replay the massacre’s harrowing time frame from the point of view of its victims. You will be hard put to find a more gripping, beautifully scored and emotionally involving documentary that utilizes animation to such an extensive degree.

A stranger named Rita dodged a barrage of bullets to lay beside wounded, pregnant Claire on the pavement during the entire ordeal. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

A stranger named Rita dodged a barrage of bullets to lay beside wounded, pregnant Claire on the pavement during the entire ordeal. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

Maitland seamlessly blends black and white and color rotoscopic animation with grainy black and white period news footage and on-camera interviews with survivors and witnesses. The first person narratives are largely rendered with rotoscoped images and dramatically voiced by young actors.

Seven individuals (who began that day with a significant other, family member, friend or colleague by their side) are the film’s prime focus:  a pregnant student and the male student who ultimately pulled her out of harm’s way; a young paperboy shot off his bicycle while on delivery; two police officers who, with a civilian University staff member, heroically ended the siege; and a radio reporter who kept locals and the nation at large in-the-loop.

“Keith’s approach–weaving extraordinary animation with previously unseen archival footage–offers a new way for audiences to look at the immediate and long-term impact on survivors,” said Lois Vossen, Executive Producer, Independent Lens.

Local news director Neal Spelce reported on the shooting as the action unfolded. His radio reports gripped the nation. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

Local news director Neal Spelce reported on the shooting as the action unfolded. His radio reports gripped the nation. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

Fifty years have passed since that fateful day, a day that obliterated forever our innocent belief that American schools and college campuses were safe oases. This mass school shooting was not only the first of its kind on U.S. soil, but it remains one of the worst statistically, in number of victims and duration. At the time, reports of the tragedy flooded news outlets around the country and the sniper and his victims landed a Life Magazine cover story.  Esteemed CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite even expressed his personal reflections on-air.

The filmmaker shares a portion of Walter Cronkite’s moving and prophetic editorial in Tower, and also gives us actual face time with several surviving victims who reflect on how they have processed the suffering and losses they endured that day and how this film project has helped them find closure.

“Four years ago when Keith approached Independent Lens with this project, the topic of gun violence was preeminent,” added Vossen. “Unfortunately, that has become even more true in the years since we funded Tower.”

Paperboy Aleck Hernandez was shot off his bike while delivering newspapers on August 1, 1966. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

Paperboy Aleck Hernandez was shot off his bike while delivering newspapers on August 1, 1966. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

In the end, Maitland’s film is not so much a story about a madman in a tower (the sniper’s name is never prominently mentioned), but rather the better angels in the mix that day whose selfless, courageous and forgiving gestures (as victims and life-savers) infuse this film with inspiration.  Tower stands as a timely reminder that guns in the hands of unstable individuals remain the number one killer of Americans on U.S. soil, and it sends a clear message that stricter gun control laws should be our priority.

I encourage you not to miss the PBS premiere of Tower on Independent Lens tonight, Tuesday, February 14, 2017, 10:00-11:30 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and its availability, beginning February 15, 2017, via online streaming  @ http://www.pbs.org/independentlens –Judith Trojan

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About Judith Trojan

Judith Trojan is an Award-winning journalist who has written and edited more than 1,000 film and TV reviews and celebrity profiles.
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