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Frank Serpico (2017) by Antonino D’Ambrosio

By Sean P. Murphy

In the opening sequence of FRANK SERPICO - we see that Det.Serpico has always considered himself an actor.He poses in front of the bathroom mirror in his old Greenwich Village apartment demonstrating how he would get into character for his various roles as a plain clothes cop in the 1960’s.

The strongest parts of Director Antonino D’Ambrosio’s  new documentary are the reenactments shot in the actual locations of Serpico’s storied career.
The most powerful being a scene in which the former detective and  NYPD whistle blower recreates the moment when he was shot in the face in a Brooklyn tenement and left for dead by his partner - in the very spot where the shooting occurred in 1971.

In this dramatic sequence we see that Frank Serpico is a man trapped in time. Forever in that doorway. Betrayed and abandoned by his brother officers.

During the film Serpico meets with his ex partner who on that fateful day in Brooklyn left him laying in a pool of blood and did not even call in a “10-13” (police code for an officer down) and who has given multiple versions of what occurred that day.
It’s an incredibly tense scene as the two old men sit together nearly fifty years on and discuss the job and corruption rampant in the NYPD in those days. The ex partner dissembles and denies to the point where the director himself intrudes to call him out on his various changing testimonies through the years. Serpico’s self control is remarkable considering it’s highly likely he was set up to be shot by this clearly corrupt detective.

As the grandson of a NYPD police officer , my father would tell me of  how my grandfather did not take the path to detective because it meant a few years on the streets in plain clothes. It was understood that plain clothes cops were "on the pad" (taking pay offs) and that my grandfather wanted no part of that dirty money. His choice meant that he would never get a detective’s gold shield and remain a sergeant in uniform which he did until retiring in the early seventies.

Director Antonino D’Ambrosio  prefers the term “non fiction” over “documentary“ with the idea being that subjectivity does not truly exist. His film demonstrates this theory well by including the many characters involved in Serpico’s journey, most of all the many characters inside Frank Serpico himself.

The film is fleshed out by appearances by Luc Sante and John Turturro as well as Serpico’s neighbors sharing their recollections of the man and his impact on addressing the corruption so sadly prevalent during the sixties and seventies.

And perhaps even today.
Serpico often speaks to gatherings of police officers who approach him privately saying “Can I talk to you ?” These officers clearly want a word with a man they see as honest as they too face problems of corruption that sadly still exist in law enforcement.

“Tower” directed by Keith Maitland (2016)

By Sean P. Murphy

On Aug 1st 1966 at 11:48am at the University Of Texas in Austin, shots rang out from the 27th floor of the clock tower onto the campus plaza below. Students and passersby reacted slowly at first to the rifle reports, not sure of the source of the sounds or aware of the fact that a sniper was deliberately targeting people. In 96 minutes, for what must have seemed an eternity, 31 people were wounded and 16 were killed.

Keith Maitland’s documentary “Tower” is an animated account of those long 96 minutes of terror and successfully transports the audience to that scorching 100 degree day in 1966.

The film focuses on Claire Wilson, an eighteen year old anthropology student. Claire and her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, are both shot down as they walked hand in hand across the campus. Tom dies instantly while Claire who is six months pregnant, lay gravely wounded in the searing heat, her unborn child killed by the gunshot to her abdomen.

The film switches briefly from stark black and white into color evoking Claire’s hopes and dreams of a family with Tom, and the sudden shattering of her future.

Using rotoscopic animation, archival footage and live radio broadcasts, Maitland weaves together the lives of the victims and the heroic actions of fellow students: Rita Starpattern makes her way to Claire and risking her own life, lays in full view of the sniper in an attempt to assist her but is soon facedown on the scorching cement as well. John ‘’Artly’’ Fox and his friend James Love, who after cowering behind the statue of Jefferson Davis, summon the courage to sprint across the plaza and carry Claire to safety.
Responding to radio reports, two Austin Police Department officers, Ramiro “Ray” Martinez and Houston McCoy, eventually make their way into the tower accompanied by Alan Crum, a campus bookstore manager, deputized inside the stairwell of the building. The three men ascend to the 27th floor and after discovering more victims, finally shoot down the sniper in a hail of shotgun blasts.

The shooter – Charles Whitman, is not portrayed in the film. Rather he is seen in a LIFE magazine article following the massacre, as a young child holding two rifles, himself a victim of the culture of violence that destroyed so many lives that awful day. The same gun mania and seemingly weekly carnage so prevalent today, is featured in news clips of now infamous mass shootings such as Columbine and Newtown.

The central character in the film is in fact the Tower itself. A gigantic and faceless symbol of power raining death down upon innocent victims. In news footage shot that day as the slaughter unfolded, puffs of smoke can be seen emanating from the observation deck giving the impression that the tower itself is the source of the senseless horror unfolding on the campus.

The murder and mayhem in Austin that afternoon had deep repercussions. It gave rise to SWAT teams across the nation and the militarized police response now common in our nation can be traced back to that day. Live radio reports from the scene were flashed across the country foreshadowing the CNN effect and instantaneous speed in which events unfold and are now reported via social media online.
Austin, a beautiful city to reside in during the 1970’s was eerily silent then and for decades to come on the subject of the Tower shootings. It hung as though a vast, dark shadow over the city. The topic was essentially taboo, an event to be suppressed and best forgotten by Texans and foremost by the university itself. Just as the Vietnam vets who proudly wore their green fatigue jackets never spoke of the horrors of that war…

Incredibly, Claire Wilson, despite the loss of her unborn child and boyfriend, has forgiven the shooter whom she regards as a victim of the madness of this nation’s obsession with firearms and violence. Others, such as Artly remain haunted by the events and speak openly about them for the first time in this film.

A testimony to the power of documentary film, the release of “Tower” spurred an about face from the university who after five decades erected a memorial to the victims and heroes of that day in a public ceremony on the 50th anniversary of the shootings.


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