The Looming Tower is a new 10-episode mini-series based on a book of the same name. It recounts the events leading up to the September 11 attacks orchestrated by Osama Bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda, but its main focus is the investigation of those events by the FBI and CIA. In fact, the lack of cooperation between the CIA and FBI during this time takes center stage. When I first heard about this series, I was a bit apprehensive. The cast looked amazing, but the subject matter isn’t necessarily my forte.
The first episode mainly takes time to establish all the parties involved. We are first introduced to Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard) and his crew at Alec Station, the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Headquarters. They have just recently obtained important data from a hard drive that their operatives retrieved from an Al-Qaeda cell. This is where the FBI Counter Terrorism task force enters the picture, going by the name “I-49” and helmed by John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels); they are supposed to be working in conjunction with the CIA. We quickly learn than the CIA doesn’t want to share intelligence with the FBI because Schmidt feels that they will destroy all the leads they’ve carefully built up, whereas O’Neill’s primary concern is protecting people. Then we are transported to Nairobi, where FBI Agent Robert Chesney (Bill Camp) is investigating a former associate of Osama Bin-Laden who now runs an unfortunately named charity “Help Africa People.” He even jokes with the man’s wife on how this name could be fixed with either a comma or just adding an “n.” We also to spend sometime in the cramped and unpleasant company of the terrorist cell, which adds further depth to the proceedings. Daringly, their actions are usually unaccompanied by dialogue and when there is talking, it’s untranslated. These elements all eventually collide as the episode progresses, leading up to the first big event in Al-Qaeda’s plan.
The focus on the show starts during the Clinton administration, 1998 to be precise. It’s in the middle of the Lewinski Scandal, and this doesn’t just serve as an “oh look, it’s the late 90s” set dressing. I was glad to see that this show refrained from overt references to its setting that other shows set in the past are prone to do. The show expertly uses a combination of actual footage from news broadcasts and recreations from the other side of the camera to help capture the setting without drawing too much attention to the style. We see a lot of now dated technology in this episode, mainly focusing on computers, software, and cellphones. In fact, some of the phone models felt two advanced for the time period, but my memory on such things is fuzzy considering I didn’t own a cellphone, nor did I know anyone who did in 1998.
The most enjoyable aspects of this first episode was the performances. Every one of Jeff Daniels’ scenes is amazing. He is prone to punctuate every conversation with an f-bomb, yet it’s fun and delightful. Even when he’s doing some pretty despicable things in his personal life, you still can’t help but like him because ultimately his intention is to protect lives. Saarsgard is equally compelling, but in a repulsive kind of way. He has a weird rapport with one of his agents and comes across as such a jerk because he won’t cooperate one iota with the FBI. Bill Camp gives off a lovable loser vibe as Agent Chesney. Despite his looks, he catches the eye of an agent at the embassy and it’s just adorable to see him being flirted at, especially as he’s so taken aback by it.
I eagerly look forward to seeing more of The Looming Tower. Yes, we all know of the historic tragedy towards which this show is inevitably leading, but the characters are so boldly drawn and grippingly performed that I want to know how they’re stories will unfold. This show has stepped out of the gate with a strong start and I hope it can maintain its lead.
The Looming Tower will be available to stream for Amazon Prime subscribers from 1st March.