Plot: Charles Whitman (Kurt Russell) is not a well man, as he is plagued by intense headaches and sometimes violent outbursts, though he is able to mask these concerns from most who know him. But as his mental health deteriorates, Whitman’s violent tendencies become more aggressive and soon, turn murderous. He purchases a powerful rifle, modifies it to suit his horrific plans, and stocks up on hundreds of rounds of ammo, then begins his personal rampage. After he stabs his own mother to death, Whitman heads to the University of Texas, where he climbs the school’s famous tower and prepares to take aim on those below. As the first victims are gunned down, panic ensues and even the authorities are hard pressed for a response. The tower allows Whitman a massive field of vision and range, so approaching the structure would be a likely suicide mission. How will Whitman’s cowardly reign of terror come to an end and how many will lose their lives in the tragic event?
Entertainment Value: The Deadly Tower is of course based on the real life events when Charles Whitman went on a murderous rampage, but as with most films of this kind, a number of liberties have been taken here. In this case, how some elements were handled led to lawsuits and the movie even offers a prominent disclaimer, as to how certain people were portrayed. This was a made for television movie, so it doesn’t take much of a stand on gun control, though there is a scene where a police officer chides a gun store owner for lack of due diligence. I did appreciate that while Whitman was of course a central part of the narrative, a good deal of time was invested in the police officers that responded to the crisis. I think it is a good approach to talk about the officers, as it shows us the human side of the authorities who risk their lives whenever a dangerous situation like this one erupts. I wouldn’t have minded more examination of Whitman’s mental state, but given the era and how mental health wasn’t as discussed at the time, I can understand. I wouldn’t rank The Deadly Tower with the best movies of its kind, but it is a well made effort that has an interesting cast and while it doesn’t take a stand, it at least looks at some important social issues.
Around this time, Kurt Russell was best known for his performances in family friendly comedies, including some live action Disney productions. But as he transitioned to more serious, mature work, a role like this one must have been quite a shock for his usual audience to adjust to. But Russell shows he can handle intense drama, putting in a powerful, dark effort as Charles Whitman. I think he has great screen presence despite being given little as far as character development, as he leans on raw energy and an unsettling persona instead. This carries over to most of his performance, since his lines are limited and he has to rely on nonverbal performance tricks, telling a lot with his eyes and facial expressions. Richard Yniguez is also good as the main officer on Whitman’s case and while the real life Ramino Martinez sued over how he was portrayed, you can’t fault Yniguez’ performance for that. The cast also includes Ned Beatty, John Forsythe, Clifton James, and Pernell Roberts.