May 28, 2024

The Looming Tower: Star-studded TV drama about the failure to apprehend 9/11

“Wherever you are, death will find you, even in the looming tower.” 

This is a quote from the Koran, which Osama bin Laden repeated three times in a speech videotaped shortly before Mohamed Atta and his four comrades-in-arms steered a Boeing 767 into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Was he foreshadowing these tragic events? Unfortunately, the clip was only found after 9/11, on a computer in the German city of Hamburg. 

‘The Looming Tower’ is also the title of a new riveting 10-part miniseries on Hulu and Amazon (following Hulu’s success with The Handmaid’s Tale), which is an adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s 2006 eponymous book that earned him a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize. ‘The Looming Tower’ is a thrilling tale about the build-up to 9/11 and despite us being aware of the horrific outcome it’s no less gripping. 


In this harrowing story (set in 1998) about bitter interagency rivalries we witness the infighting between 20-year bureau veteran John O’Neill (based on the real-life John O’Neill who died in the 9/11 attacks, played by Emmy-winner Jeff Daniels), head of the F.B.I.’s New York field office and the team assigned to track Al Qaeda in the U.S., and Martin Schmidt (Peter Saarsgard), C.I.A. analyst and station chief of the bin Laden unit. Both agencies seemingly work towards the same goal: apprehending an Al Qaeda attack on the United States but they try to go about it in radically different and conflicting ways. 


“The F.B.I. was just starting to work as an international agency, and that was part of their problem with the C.I.A., who felt that was their turf, and the F.B.I.’s turf was America”, says showrunner Dan Futterman, Oscar-nominated writer of the scripts for Capote and Foxcatcher. “Part of the animosity was personal, and part of the reason that the C.I.A. and F.B.I. had different institutional missions. The C.I.A.’s mission is to gather intelligence, and then present that information to the executive branch. The F.B.I. is supposed to go out and arrest people and put them on trial. These things don’t go together.” 


What should have been fruitful cooperation turned into trench war. When the F.B.I. sends agents to the C.I.A. to figure out what kind of information they have gathered – and are possibly withholding – Schmidt (seemingly based on the real-life Michael Scheuer) smells a rat and demonstratively closes the shutters to his office. The head of the bin Laden unit argues that a pre-emptive C.I.A.-coordinated strike would be an appropriate measure to deal with Al Qaeda whereas O’Neill fears that (apart from considerable civilian casualties) this heavy-handed approach might destroy a valuable source of information. Also, O’Neill is convinced that Al Qaeda is on its way to the U.S. and arresting bin Laden as well trying him in a court of law would be the best course of action. 


The three-pronged team of Futterman, Lawrence Wright and the award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (director of the Scientology documentary Going Clear), executive producer of the show, presents a powerful story with emotional and dramatic traction and depth. Yet, when compared to the book the show does reveal a few peculiarities, namely that it has been what you could call ‘americanized. The book’s plot largely focusses on Middle-Easterners: Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri and other jihadists, clerics, teachers and wives. The show’s plot, on the other hand, focusses largely on Americans: C.I.A. and F.B.I. agents, diplomats, families and lovers. 


Also, on occasion the plot loses credibility, for example when the spotlight is on O’Neill’s love life (the head of the New York field office entertains several mistresses and lives way beyond his means so much so that the F.B.I. feels obliged to ask him to tighten his belt) or the flirtations of F.B.I. counterterrorism agent Robert Chesney (Bill Camp) with an embassy worker in Nairobi which never quite turn into a full-blown relationship because she dies in the US embassy bombings in 1998. This attempt to add an extra layer of emotional drama to the story seems redundant. Of course, the writers might try to appeal to a wider audience here as well as reduce the pace because the plot is complex and often switches rapidly between US and international locations such as Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Tirana and Khost plus incorporating scenes of Schmidt and Richard A. Clarke’s (chief counterterrorism advisor on the US National Security Council played by Michael Stuhlbarg) testimony from the 2004 9/11 commission. 


Albeit ‘The Looming Tower’ being somewhat downsized to a detective story the show has some distinct highlights to offer, one of which is F.B.I. agent Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim, star of the Oscar-nominated French prison drama ‘A Prophet’), a trailblazer in O’Neill’s team of terrorist-battling feds. The Franco-Algerian actor portrays a real-life figure, who was at the time one of only eight Arab-speaking F.B.I. agents and actually the one person who came closest to preventing 9/11. 


Because of his Muslim background and language-skills Soufan’s interrogations of detained Al Qaeda suspects provide chilling insight into the hypocrisy of these religious fanatics. Soufan is personally offended by their convictions and passionately argues against what he thinks is a corruption of the teachings of Islam. In that respect, ‘The Looming Tower’ shows great authenticity and acumen. And because this character is one of the key figures of the series it seems appropriate to let the real-life Ali Soufan have the final say: “We did exactly what Al Qaeda wanted us to do.” (from an interview with the German news magazine Der Spiegel, 11th September 2011)

by Frank H Diebel 

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