Review: ‘The Looming Tower’ looks at the rise of Al Qaeda, and the dysfunction of Washington
Hulu’s political thriller “The Looming Tower” goes so far behind the scenes of America’s war on terror in the ’90s and 2000s that willing viewers may learn more about that dark era from the pilot episode than they have in the 16 years since the 9/11 attacks, or feel utterly overwhelmed.
It’s true, this original miniseries, premiering Wednesday, demands a certain patience and commitment from its audience as it unpacks the impossibly complex geopolitical and domestic components that led to the rise of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and the fall of the Twin Towers. But the payoff is a show that blooms into an all-consuming drama by Episode 2.
Based on Lawrence Wright’s nonfiction book of the same name, “The Looming Tower” convincingly suggests that infighting between the CIA and FBI may have thwarted counterterrorism efforts leading up to the 9/11 attacks and allowed for the largely unfettered growth of anti-American terror cells overseas.
Capitalizing on the Emmy-winning success of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the once-fledging streaming network has positioned “The Looming Tower” as its next high-quality, poignant series. Its all-star cast includes Bill Camp (“The Night Of”) as New York veteran FBI agent Robert Chesney. Michael Stuhlbarg (“Boardwalk Empire”) is the Clinton administration’s counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke, while Jeff Daniels (“The Newsroom”) is John O’Neill, special agent in charge of the FBI counterterror efforts. Peter Sarsgaard (“The Killing”) is Martin Schmidt, the CIA’s proprietary head of the Bin Laden task force, and Alec Baldwin plays his boss, CIA director George Tenet.
The first few episodes available for review in this 10-episode series co-created by Wright, Dan Futterman (“Capote”) and documentarian Alex Gibney take a wide view, connecting the dots between the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, the fallout of the failed Russian occupation of Afghanistan and Washington, D.C.’s political maneuvering around the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair.
Based on actual events, but also including fictional dramatizations, early episodes show that mistakes were made in the years leading up to 9/11, laying the groundwork for today’s mess in Iraq, Islamic State and the horror in Syria. Perhaps it all could have been averted if egos had been put aside and warning signs heeded.
The story begins in 1998 and moves through Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, bomb factories in Albania and an Arabic-language newspaper office in London. The roundtable government and military meetings in the U.S. make it clear: No one is willing to share information; therefore, no one has a clue where to find Bin Laden.
The CIA wants to bomb Bin Laden out of hiding and into the grave. The FBI wants to capture him and drag him through court. It’s a microcosm of our confused strategies on terrorism leading all the way up to President Obama’s drones in Pakistan and President Trump’s attack of a Syrian air base. Widespread “Shock and Awe” or precision Special Ops?
“The Looming Tower’s” Lebanese American FBI agent Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim) is the rare Muslim character in a terror-related drama who convincingly illustrates the despair and frustration of watching one’s faith hijacked in the name of an ungodly cause. His hidden rage while serving as backup in interrogations of Arabic speakers who have no idea he speaks their language is so palpable viewers will feel it too.
And when he does occasionally pray, or when other Muslims are shown kneeling in the masjid or clutching prayer beads, the imagery is intercut with scenes of O’Neill at a Catholic church, where similar rituals are observed with the Communion bread and rosaries. It powerfully illustrates how much the “fear of the other,” which present-day politicians have seized upon, is all a matter of perception, or perhaps exposure.
Soufan also smokes and drinks because, despite what television and film have portrayed for years, not all Muslims are fundamentalists, or pious, or even practicing. And they’re not immune to the culture of the place they call home. For Soufan, that is America.
Thoughtful subplots and details like this add to a main narrative that’s fast-moving, intense and steeped in 1990s and 2000s headlines. The series folds in history, politics and the fear many Americans had in those years of color-coded terror alerts and the sporadic release of taped Al Qeada threats by way of the press, offering layers of context to the events behind the events.
The drawback here is a lack of substantive female characters, at least in the early episodes. The women portrayed in “The Looming Tower” are either spouses and girlfriends left behind at home by busy agents, young hotties in bars who are inexplicably attracted to rumpled old guys with limited charm, or co-workers who have sex with their male counterparts mere hours after meeting them.
The dialogue spoken between the men and women is utterly sophomoric compared with the rest of the show’s material. When O’Neill seduces one of his many svelte mistresses, she says, “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” And, as if channeling Steven Seagal, he says to her, “I’m just tryin’ to catch some bad guys.”
Otherwise, “The Looming Tower” does an outstanding job of showing how miscalculations on the U.S. government’s part — and Bin Laden’s exploitation of those mistakes — created generations of terrorists.
In a scene on the ground in Afghanistan, a group of young boys in shabby clothing plays soccer and hacky sack in the dirt. They spot what looks to be two shooting stars over the mountains. “Shoof! [Look!]” says one boy excitedly. Then boom! The children and encampment are leveled by blasts from American missiles.
The boy arises from the dust, looks around at the destruction and death, and in a flash his childlike gaze hardens. A terror recruit in the making.
‘The Looming Tower’
When: Any time, starting Wednesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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