The Looming Tower follows the escalating threat of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida in the late nineties and how the rivalry between the FBI and CIA – agencies meant to coordinate their information and responsible for tracking these threats – during this time unintentionally set the path for 9/11.
The TV series follows members of the I-49 Squad in New York and Alec Station in Washington (the counterterrorism divisions of the FBI and CIA, respectively) working towards a common goal of preventing an imminent attack on American soil.
The drama is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name by Lawrence Wright.The Looming Tower is a story of bureaucratic breakdown between the two biggest investigation agencies in the United States and how the power struggle between the two ends in disastrous consequences for the country, with a major attack in 9/11, one that changed the world for the worse.
Jeff Daniels stars as FBI counter-terrorism expert John O’Neill, Peter Sarsgaard as CIA analyst Martin Schmidt, Michael Stuhlbarg as chief counter terrorism adviser Richard Clarke and Tahar Rahim, who plays the Lebanese-American FBI agent Ali Soufan.
The name of the book and series is apt as the twin towers loom throughout the story and the pressure is gripping as we know where the conclusion is headed. The drama is well-paced and the tension increases with every episode. The premise is simple. The FBI and CIA are to join hands to investigate Al-Qaida and surrounding threats and therefore, two agents from the FBI are placed in Alec Station, to share information and pass it on to their FBI counterparts. They are, however, blocked at every turn and subtly threatened with consequences if they were to divulge any information they found even accidently.
The best performances here are those of Daniels and Sarsgaard, as O’Neill and Schmidt respectively, whose disdain for one another can be easily seen.
Daniel’s character, O’Neill is a 20-year veteran of the bureau and special agent in charge of the New York City field office. He watches the threat from Al-Qaida, and appeals to the CIA to shares its intelligence with the bureau before an attack happens. He’s also complicated, married with two children and sleeping around with multiple women, living beyond his means, showering them with gifts and so on.
Meanwhile, Sarsgaard’s Schmidt is the unsympathetic and impossibly self-righteous CIA man, who closes the shades to his office when FBI comes around. He doesn’t care about fatalities and is always imploring the higher ups to strike when he thinks a target is present. The relationship between the two is fraught with contempt for one another but mainly he doesn’t like O’Neill’s apprehension about pre-emptive, CIA-coordinated strikes even if it results in civilian casualties. Schmidt’s unease is that with the FBI more concerned about civil liberties, not all methods of persuasion can be used on suspects with them around.
Like the book on which it is based, The Looming Tower is very much an ensemble drama.
The only negative thing that can be said about the show is how it underuses its female characters. They’re more present to further the storyline of the male characters than have interesting storylines of their own. The wives and mistresses of O’ Neill are loomed together as one, and there is no interaction between them or any conflict as they are seemingly unaware of one another. Others like Soufan have love interest but that is in the background once again and has no connection to any other character in the series.
The Looming Tower does one thing brilliantly and that is going between past and present. While the show moves between the nineties, going forward to 9/11, the other half is shown by intermixing scenes of Schmidt and Clarke’s testifying before the 9/11 commission in 2004.
In the end, The Looming Tower succeeds because it also shows what might’ve been, had everyone cooperated with one another and maybe the disastrous events of 9/11 and everything else that followed in America and around the world wouldn’t have happened. Who knows?
– The writer can be reached on Twitter @nosheensabeeh [email protected]