At the time, it was a brand new kind of horror. In the 50 years since, though, it has become an all-too-frequent American nightmare.
Late in the morning of August 1, 1966, a pregnant University of Texas student named Claire and her boyfriend Tom stepped out of a coffee shop and into the sniper fire of a madman perched high on the tower of the Main Building. A madman who would spend 90 minutes trying to kill or maim as many of the people scurrying in panic far beneath him as he could.
Using a blend of old news footage, current interviews and, primarily, rotoscope animation of actors reenacting the events of the day, the documentary Tower throws us immediately into the chaos of one of the country’s first random mass shootings. It’s by turns harrowing and very moving.
The fate of Claire, her unborn baby and her boyfriend is the movie’s most engrossing story, especially when their plight stirs unexpected heroism in other students willing to risk their lives to help them. The film’s real-life cast of characters extends to include a TV reporter, covering the story live from his station wagon, and a trio of law enforcement officers trying to figure out a way to ascend the tower of the school’s Main Building and confront the shooter.
Director Keith Maitland’s decision to use animation and actors, as well as historic footage and first-person, present-day interviews, gives the movie a texture that’s always surprising and fresh. He also makes another smart, admirable decision. The movie wastes no time on identifying the shooter, giving us his backstory or speculating about his motives. Tower treats him, appropriately, as a nobody whose name isn’t even worth mentioning. The movie all but erases him, instead focusing on the witnesses, victims and heroes of that long, hot day.
“I can’t hate him, in spite of the incredible damage that he’s done,” the real-life Claire says near the film’s end. “I forgive him, yes. How can I not forgive him?”
That’s a generous view. But it’s hard to share her grace when the last minutes’ news clips remind us of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, etc. — all the heavily armed massacres that can be seen as the deranged offspring of this one day in August. At the time, though, this was a fresh kind of American madness. Witnesses in Tower recall how, in the wake of the shooting, the UT campus swelled with students and bystanders, stumbling around, overwhelmed by “just shock and awe, kind of a blankness.”
That same mood descends on a Sarasota TV newsroom in the final scenes of Christine, also based on a true story (though the film’s a feature, not a documentary). If you don’t want to know what created that mood, you probably shouldn’t read the rest of this review, though I won’t be specific with spoilers.
Filmed in Savannah, the drama stars Rebecca Hall as Christine Chubbuck, a flat-voiced, too-smart-for-the-room news reporter transplanted to Florida from Boston. She lives with her hippie-ish mom, Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), who’s always struggling to strike the balance between parent and roommate. It’s from Peg that we start to learn that Christine has gone through some rough mental patches back in Massachusetts.
It’s 1974. Chris, as she’s known by her colleagues, is trying to make a fresh start at her new station, chasing down uplifting human interest stories that the station manager Michael (Tracy Letts, in fine, officious bluster) increasingly sees as a drain on ratings. He’s gotten the widespread, TV-industry memo: “If it bleeds, it leads,” an approach Christine finds cynical at best.
But journalistic ethics aren’t her biggest obstacle. At 29, she’s a virgin, and you can see why. She’d be diagnosed bipolar today, but it could be she was also somewhere on the autism spectrum. Watching her edge into a rollicking Fourth of July party as if it were a battlefield, you wince for her, but also want to look away. And you share the embarrassment of a couple, celebrating their third anniversary, whom Christine approaches with a pitiful mix of admiration and envy of their romance. When her coworkers start glancing at her as if they’re trying to read the countdown on a time bomb, you sympathize.
One of them includes the blandly telegenic, well-meaning anchor George (Michael C. Hall). Christine has a crush on him, and you don’t have to have seen Sissy Spacek preparing for her doomed prom night in Carrie to cringe when she goes out for a dinner date with him.
Rebecca Hall is a fantastic actor, but if anything she’s almost too good at nailing Chubbuck’s social ineptness, her inability to read a room, her mix of ambition and defensiveness. It’s one of those performances that you admire more than enjoy. I had the same overall reaction to the movie, a competent but uninspired piece of workmanship.
Chubbuck’s bloody act on the last day of her life was rumored, erroneously, to have inspired Paddy Chayefsky’s script for Network. Christine makes you think of that movie, and also of Broadcast News — if Holly’s Hunter’s news producer had been mentally unstable on top of being a perfectionist workaholic. But in the end, Christine doesn’t come close to those films. It doesn’t connect the dots between TV trends of the ’70s and the loud, woeful mistakes being made today on our 24/7 cable news networks. Nor does it particularly enlighten us on mental illness or social haplessness. The movie only told me what I already knew, something it shares with Tower: that an unstable person with access to a gun is capable of turning its fatal power on innocent others, or on herself.
Tower. A documentary directed by Keith Maitland. Unrated. 96 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Christine. With Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts. Directed by Antonio Campos. Rated R. 115 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.