In the US: Wednesdays, Hulu
In the UK: Thursdays, Amazon
How soon is too soon? 9/11 was a staggering 17 years ago, more or less, yet it still looms over daily politics. So is it too soon for the events leading up to it – and its fallout – to be dramatised on TV, even by documentary makers working from a book by a Pulitzer Prize-winner?
Possibly. To be honest, The Looming Tower feels a little brave just for trying to do what it’s doing – namely to point fingers at real people and organisations to suggest what went wrong with the US’s intelligence apparatus that allowed Osama bin Laden to fatally attack New York and Washington DC in 2001. But it does it so well and intelligently that you feel it’s earned the right.
It starts its narrative in 1998, introducing us to the two real adversaries of the piece: Jeff Daniels, the head of the FBI’s I-49 Squad counter-terrorism unit, and Peter Sarsgaard, the CIA’s corresponding head of ‘Alec Station’. Both want to catch Osama bin Laden, but disagree on methods. Daniels wants to approach it as a criminal matter, building a case against him so he can be arrested and tried in court, working his way up through the minor levels of al Qaeda until he gets to the boss. Sarsgaard on the other hand doesn’t care about the little people and is worried that using intel to catch them will let the big guy get away. He’d rather rendition, waterboard, bribe and carpet bomb his way around the Middle East until he can cut the head off the snake, even if it means thousands of civilians will be killed in the process – at least they won’t be American civilians.
Sarsgaard’s approach means that he’s not going to give Daniels any of the intel he receives, as Daniels will only end doing something stupid like using it to arrest people. What could go wrong? The Looming Tower shows us exactly what.
In most fictional shows, Sarsgaard would be the daring goodie, Daniels the by-the-book dullard who’s missing the bigger picture and needs to be sidetracked. But although it’s ultimately the CIA that gets its way, defining US tactics for years post 9-11 before it switches to Daniels’ approach, The Looking Tower instead sides with Daniels.
Saarsgaard is a brittle theoretician with zero people skills and just as little field experience. Nevertheless, he believes he’s the smartest man in the room – everyone calls him ‘the professor’ – and can’t see any flaws in his ‘perfect’ (aka insane) plans, other than the stupidity of other people.
Meanwhile, Daniels is all about feet on the ground and getting to know the enemy, using the normal skills of law enforcement. His methodical use of human intelligence is going to work best in the long-term and avoid potentially bolstering al-Qaeda’s recruitment campaigns; it’s also going to stop atrocities from happening in the short-term.
Central to this is Tahar Rahim (A Prophet, The Last Panthers), one of the FBI’s eight (read them and weep) Arabic speakers and a lapsed Lebanese-American Muslim who joined the FBI for a bet. But Bill Camp, an ageing former soldier trained in counter-intelligence techniques, also proves to be important as he uses his training to extract information peacefully from those who have been arrested.
Although the action sometimes shifts to the 2004 congressional 9/11 enquiry, the first three episodes are still largely set three years before 2001, when bin Laden’s plans for the US are still nascent. The story therefore focuses on his warning to the world in his interview with ABC on US TV, followed by his assaults in Africa, including the bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, and the subsequent FBI investigation.
Here, the show takes a leaf from Narcos‘ book by interspersing the show’s impressive recreation of events with TV footage of the time, making everything far more real than it would otherwise have been. It also does everything intelligently and no one is stupid – arrogant, maybe, but not stupid. The FBI, the Kenyan police and al Qaeda are all respectful professionals, as well as fully rounded human beings.
There’s a real air of verisimilitude to proceedings, in terms of both the FBI’s work as well as al Qaeda’s planning. If a trite cliché of the spy or police procedural genre comes anywhere near the plot, it quickly gets chewed up and spat out. There’s also some great dialogue and even moments of comedy, mainly involving national intelligence co-ordinator Michael Stuhlbarg’s rebuffs to Saarsgaard (“I know you think there’s a button under my desk that can authorise bombings at your word, but I have to tell you, no such button has been supplied to me”).
Okay, that’s not 100% true of the activities in England, with South Africa not wholly convincing as a double for both London and Manchester. But I’ve seen worse and Tony Curran’s Special Branch officer clearly comes from Northern Ireland not the Republic – the show doesn’t overlook the IRA’s activities in previous decades, either.
There is perhaps a little too much focus on Daniels’ bigamist (or should that be trigamist) private life, as well as Rahim’s dating activities. Alec Baldwin has yet to convince as CIA director George Tenet and the story’s thrust is perhaps a little too one-sided, with the CIA clearly identified by the show as the problem, with little contrasting evidence from the agency’s point of view. And while The Looming Tower is better paced and better written than its ultimate epilogue Zero Dark Thirty, it’s obviously nowhere near as well directed, even if its paced documentary style serves the narrative.
But if you like your Homeland-style spy thrillers with real-world authenticity, great acting from Sarsgaard and Rahim, and genuine stakes, The Looming Tower will be a great addition to your viewing queue.
Barrometer Rating: 1