America's Deadliest School Shooting for Nearly a Half-Century Is Reexamined in Oscar Shortlist Documentary

American mass murderer Charles Whitman was “a good son, a top Boy Scout, an excellent Marine, an honor student, a hard worker, a loving husband, a fine scout master, a handsome man, a wonderful friend to all who knew him—and an expert sniper," the Austin American reported on Aug. 2, 1966.

These were the words that inspired Pamela Colloff's look back at the Texas Tower shooting 40 years later, and Keith Maitland's new documentary Tower (2016), which airs on PBS on February 14. 

"Before 9/11, before Columbine, before the Oklahoma City bombing, before 'going postal' was a turn of phrase, the 25-year-old ushered in the notion that any group of people, anywhere—even walking around a university campus on a summer day—could be killed at random by a stranger," Colloff wrote in 2006. 

Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas Tower on Aug. 1, 1966, carrying with him three rifles, two pistols and a sawed-off shotgun. From the observation deck, he killed 17 people and wounded 31 in just 96 minutes.

The Texas Tower massacre was still the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history when Colloff spoke with witnesses to commemorate its four-decade anniversary. These testimonials are the basis for Tower, which reexamines that horrifying afternoon through rotoscoped archival footage and first-person accounts. 

“I wanted to create an experiential film that was immersive. … I wanted you to feel like you were there,” filmmaker Maitland said

Claire Wilson James, a survivor of the mass shooting, trusted Maitland with the project. Meanwhile, the director provided a support system James felt survivors lacked in '66.

“We had no one to talk to,” she said. “So when people say the journalists are macabre, I feel they’re just trying to tell the truth and keep it for us. I’ve seen [Maitland’s] movie 17 times, and each time I find something new I did not understand at the time, because I was right there in the middle and did not know what was going on at the time.”

In December, Tower made the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature. The film airs Tuesday, February 14, at 10pm on PBS.

Watch an exclusive clip: 

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