Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
Documentaries about events in the somewhat-distant past tend to speak in a familiar visual vocabulary. If you see enough films along those lines, you get used to the tricks, and they can make the events themselves, however gripping, feel perfunctory—especially re-enactments, which tend to be either so overproduced that you wonder why they just didn't go ahead and make a dramatic film with actors, or else so abstract (silhouettes, blurred faces, closeups of hands and feet and clothing de tails) that the movie seems to have been put together from a mass-produced "make your own documentary" kit. Once in awhile, though, you see a documentary that creates its own distinctive aesthetic while still honoring the subject. "Tower," about the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas at Austin, is that kind of movie.
Directed by Keith Maitland from Pamela Colloff's Texas Monthly article "96 Minutes," it reconstructs one of the first modern sniper-driven bloodbaths, minute by minute, hour by hour, mixing traditional interviews and animation. This mix of modes finds a different way into the events of that day, capturing the fear, pain and resilience of the community in the manner of a reporter, but also a musician or painter. Like other semi-recent nonfiction films that used animation, including "Waltz with Bashir" and "Chicago 10," "Tower" is explanatory journalism and history, but also personally expressive, and the two impulses never cancel each other out.
The shootings took place on August 1, 1966, when a man armed with a high powered rifle, a sawed-off shotgun and other weapons locked himself in the observation deck of the main tower of the campus and started shooting at people down below, seemingly at random. At first people didn't know what was happening. The gunshots sounded like firecrackers, and the first few successful hits were scattered in so many different areas of campus that it took a while for bystanders to realize the full magnitude of the event and take cover. By the end of the day, 14 people were shot and killed; the sniper was eventually shot dead by police who breached the barricade. The UT-Austin shootings are now seen as a harbinger of shooting sprees to come, but for whatever reason this particular story has never been told in a feature-length documentary before.
Maitland and his collaborators structure the story in the manner of a nonfiction novel—or the type of ensemble drama that Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson or Austin's own Richard Linklater might make. We're introduced to a wide variety of characters from different walks of life. Some will live, others will die; some of the survivors will watch as their friends are murdered for no reason at all.