TV Series Review: The Looming Tower S1

THE LOOMING TOWER S1

Starring: Jeff Daniels, Tahar Rahim, Peter Sarsgaard, Wrenn Schmidt, Bill Camp, Louis Cancelmi, Virginia Kull, Ella Rae Peck, Michael Stuhlbarg and Alec Baldwin

Director: Alex Gibney (Episode 1), John Dahl (Episodes 2, 3), Ali Selim (Episodes 4, 5), Michael Slovis (Episodes 6, 7), Craig Zisk (Episodes 8, 9, 10)

Writers: Dan Futterman (Episodes 1, 2, 6, 10), Bash Doran (Episodes 3, 8), Adam Rapp (Episodes 4, 9), Shannon Houston (Episode 5), Ali Selim (Episodes 7, 10)

Reviewed by Sidney Morgan

This review CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS.

When television began to spread, it connected people across the country and the world like never before. The number of connections only increase as new media consumption devices are created and sold. Nationally, even globally, people could now experience events simultaneously, leading to many water cooler moments. The collective gasps when JR was shot or Cece was revealed as the one under that black hood. Or shock when Chris died in Skins. Or sadness when seeing Monica, Rachel and friends go to Central Perk one last time. But those are all fictional events, created for entertainment purposes. What about real events? The ones that affect the cultural fabric of its time? Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the Berlin Wall being torn down, the OJ Simpson trial, and tragically, September 11, 2001.

Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard) and Richard Clarke (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Those moments, whether inspiring, fearful, sad, or joyful, affect us. And as time passes, those memories, those feelings, although subsided, remain. So when a television show is made about one of them, people watch, either out of curiosity or nostalgia. And they will bring back memories and feelings. For those who were around in 1994, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story accomplished this, partly explaining its popularity. And for those who were around in 2001, The Looming Tower will do the same, and more.

Adapted from the book of the same name, The Looming Tower is a story about the events leading up to the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, not the attack itself. It begins in 1998 when the CIA and FBI counter-terrorism units, Alec Station and i-49, attempt to gather information about Al-Qaeda. The first episode establishes that the two agencies, though supposed to be working together, continuously clashed about information sharing. The CIA, known to have jurisdiction on national security matters outside the American borders, gathered information about Al-Qaeda yet refused to share with the FBI. Meanwhile, what little information the FBI had, they shared. After the bombings of the Dar Es Salam and Nairobi American embassies, something the FBI claims could have been prevented, O’Neill, the head of the FBI counter-terrorism unit, decides to conduct its own investigations, during which Soufan becomes a prominent player.

Diane Marsh (Wrenn Schmidt)

The Looming Tower is a brilliant and sobering show. Shot in various locations around the world, Hulu made sure the budget was available to make it realistic. It has romance, humour, tragedy, and thrills coming from the political interactions and intrigue, the criminal and mystery elements, as well as the action from counter-terrorist actions. It incorporates actual footage from some of the events, thereby adding to the realism. And it also manages to evoke various emotions. Sadness for all the lives lost during the many terrorist attacks. Excitement from the edge-of-your seat feeling as the action occurs. Curiosity and confusion stemming from political decision making and operations. But none is more powerful than the anger resulting from the alleged CIA and FBI actions.

As the show evolves and makes its way to the events of September 11, 2001, it’s strongly suggested that the CIA deliberately kept information from the FBI. The whereabouts of Al-Qaeda members, even when on American soil (FBI jurisdiction) wasn’t divulged and those same people were the hijackers. Admittedly, some of this is conjecture as there is no way to guarantee that having that information would have prevented the 9/11 attacks. However, the evidence makes it plausible. And that’s what causes the anger. Even with the gift of hindsight and the knowledge of what happened, one can only wonder if cooperation would have made a difference. The Looming Tower certainly does.

The picture is taking shape, and it doesn’t bode well.

Author Lawrence Wright conducted extensive research to write his book, and the show uses it as its basis. Some of the events are factually accurate, but it’s impossible to recollect exactly what was said throughout those three years. As a result, some elements are fictionalized, including dialogue. It was also necessary to do so to improve the dramatic telling of the story. And whereas some characters in the show actually existed, like John O’Neil, Ali Soufan, Richard Clarke and Condoleeza Rice. Others are composites, including Martin Schmidt, Diane Marsh, and Robert Chesney. And the actors chosen to portray all these roles have done an exceptional job.

Head of the FBI’s counter-terrorism unit is John O’Neill played by Jeff Daniels. He’s driven, loyal and imperfect. He cuts corners and makes a few questionable decision, but it’s all to catch terrorists. And Jeff Daniels plays the role perfectly. He even interviewed many of O’Neill’s friends to ensure an authentic performance. His protégé Ali Soufan (who’s also a producer on the show) is played by Tahar Rahim. Soufan is also driven, but for different reasons, including his disgust with the way terrorists use a distorted and incorrect interpretation of Islam. Rahim’s performance as a rookie thrown into action is outstanding. These two characters are the driving force behind the FBI investigation, and it is riveting to watch them in action.

Kathy Shaughnessy (Virginia Kull) and Robert Chesney (Bill Camp) interrogating Mohamad al-Owhali (Youssef Berouain), a suspect in the Nairobi attack.

Head of the CIA’s counter-terrorism unit is Martin Schmidt played by Peter Sarsgaard. As with O’Neill, he’s obsessively focused on bringing down Al-Qaeda, except that he’s far more extreme in his proposed actions. His close associate is Diane Marsh played by Wrenn Schmidt, whose loyalty to Schmidt is cult-like. Though their aim is the security of the USA, they are both stubborn, and bear of the brunt of the anger felt by viewers. Both feel that it is the CIA’s responsibility, and theirs alone, to combat terrorism abroad and as a result refuse to share information with the FBI.

The cast of supporting characters is incredible. There’s Bill Camp as Robert Chesney, Louie Cancelmi as Vince Stuart, Michael Stuhlbarg as Richard Clarke, Ella Rae Peck as Heather and Alec Baldwin as George Tenet to name just a few. Every role was well cast, and the actors all performed well. It’s a testament to the quality of the show.

Verdict: An absolute must watch!

The Looming Tower is an outstanding and brilliant show even if it deals with a tragic event that modified the American psyche. Hulu made sure that the writers and producers had the flexibility and liberty to tell the story, as harsh and indicting as it is at times. You won’t be disappointed. In fact, you might even be encouraged to watch it a second time. From the opening message to the last second, it’s enthralling, and by the time the last word scrolls by in the last episode, you’ll still be staring at the screen, speechless.

The Looming Tower is available on Amazon Prime Canada and Hulu.

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