This documentary has an unusual feel to it.  It's partially animated, in rotoscope.  Other parts include grainy 8 mm film of the event itself, archival footage from the era, still photos, and interviews from participants many years later.  We see their faces interspersed with the animated rotoscope images of themselves as much younger, with voiceover actors using the participants' own words to describe their long-ago experiences.

            Yes, it's about the tragic incident at the University of Texas tower on August 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman got on the 27th floor observation deck with a high-powered rifle and just randomly started shooting people.  90 minutes later, he'd killed 14 people and wounded 32 others, before a couple of Austin cops, accompanied by a passerby civilian, stormed the observation deck and took out Charles Whitman.

            Director Keith Maitland tells the story from the point of view of the survivors, many of whom he was able to locate and interview.  The most poignant account was that of Claire Wilson (the voice of Violett Beane), who was eight months pregnant at the time, walking with her fiancee (who was not the baby's father, we later learn) out of the student commons, when suddenly she is shot and falls to the ground.  When her fiancee tries to help her, he, too, is shot, and falls down dead beside her.  She's still alive, but fears that her wound has affected her baby (her fears were justified; the baby died in vitro). She's also panicked and helpless, lying on the hot asphalt (a typical 100-degree August day in Austin). A compassionate passerby by the name of Rita Starpattern (Josephine McAdam) crawls up to her and offers her encouragement, even while the shooter is still taking out targets.

            Since it was the first mass shooting in recent memory, people literally did not know what was happening.  Some failed to run for cover fast enough.  Others felt that should have done something but realized they did not want to put themselves in the line of fire.  Still others heroically went out and rescued Claire Wilson, carrying her to safety.  The local police who wound up being involved of course had no idea when they went to work that day that they would be called upon to confront the killer themselves.

            Director Maitland manages to capture some real emotion from the participants, even all these years later.  It was an age 'way before social networking, and personal publicity was limited.  In fact, Rita Starpattern died of cancer some years ago, and apparently no one who knew her ever heard her say anything about the Tower shooting, or her role in it.

            The cinematography is really unique, and well worth the visit.  Even though there's no attempt to analyze the life of the shooter, or his motivation, the movie captures the chaos and the pathos which he lamentably created in those fateful 90 minutes of August 1, 1966.



Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Do you think survivors of mass shooting carry considerable PTSD from their experiences?

2)                  What do you think is the motivation of a person who randomly shoots innocent victims?

3)                  Do you remember what were you doing on August 1, 1966?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association