TV Miniseries Review: ‘The Looming Tower’

Cover for the Blu-ray packaging. (C) 2018 Warner Home Entertainment & Legendary Television

The Looming Tower (2018)

AKA: TLT

Based on: The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright

Created by: Dan Futterman, Alex Gibney, and Lawrence Wright

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

On February 28, 2018, the streaming channel Hulu released the first three episodes – “Now It Begins…”, “Losing My Religion,” and “Mistakes Were Made” – of The Looming Tower, a 10-part limited series about how the intense rivalry between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) hindered the U.S. intelligence community’s efforts to track Islamic terror group Al-Qaeda and its wealthy, charismatic leader, Osama bin Laden (or, as he was called by U.S. intelligence agencies in the Nineties, Usama bin Laden or UBL) and was a major factor in the success of the Al-Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001.

Adapted by Dan Futterman, Alex Gibney, and Lawrence Wright from Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006), The Looming Tower (TLT) follows two separate counter-terrorist teams, the CIA’s “Alec Station,” which is the division of the Agency’s Langley-based Counterterrorism Center tasked with finding bin Laden’s jihadist group during the last years of the Clinton Administration, and the New York City-based Counterterrorism Center, code-named I-49.

Alec Station is headed by CIA Officer Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard) and his deputy, Diane Marsh (Wrenn Schmidt), both of whom are convinced that their agency and its assets are uniquely suited for the mission of finding and stopping foreign terrorists. Schmidt (who is loosely based on Michael Scheuer) is a zealot on the topic of seeking out and killing “UBL” without any consideration for collateral damage in any of bin Laden’s Middle Eastern sanctuaries, including Sudan and, later, Afghanistan.

Marsh, the second-in-command at Alec Station, is loosely based on the controversial Alfreda Frances Bikowski, who in real life was one of the main apologists for the Agency’s use of torture to extract information from suspected Al-Qaeda operatives captured by the U.S. or its Middle Eastern allies. In TLT, she almost literally swoons in the presence of her boss and mentor, whose views about how to deal with terrorists and the CIA’s primacy in America’s counterterrorism fight she shares wholeheartedly.

Although the CIA – then led by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet (Alec Baldwin) – and the FBI – headed by the oft-mentioned but never seen Louis Freeh – are supposed to collaborate, Schmidt and Marsh decide to withhold any information about Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda from I-49’s leader, FBI Special Agent in Charge John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels), a smart, dedicated, but abrasive man whose expensive tastes and marital infidelities have a detrimental effect on his career at the Bureau. Married and father to two daughters, O’Neill nevertheless has three mistresses in TLT, including English professor Liz (Annie Parisse) in New York and Sheri (Katie Finneran) in Washington, DC.

Schmidt and Marsh’s personal dislike of O’Neill and their obsessive need to keep things close to the vest leads the CIA duo to hide everything from the FBI’s I-49 team, including shutting out the two Bureau liaison agents, Vince Stewart (Louis Cancelmi) and  Toni-Ann Marino (Jamie Neumann) by denying them access to Agency intel, not including them in briefings, and covering up Al-Qaeda organizational charts, maps, and any other visual aids they might see in Alec Center’s office space.

The Looming Tower traces the rising threat of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the late 1990s and how the rivalry between the FBI and CIA during that time may have inadvertently set the path for the tragedy of 9/11. The new drama series is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction book by Lawrence Wright. – Packaging blurb, The Looming Tower Blu-ray

Kenneth Fok, Virginia Kull, and Bill Camp play FBI agents investigating the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya in a scene from The Looming Tower. Photo Credit: Hulu and Legendary Television

TLT has its fair share of heroes, although many, like Daniels’ John O’Neill, are not Jack Ryan-like “Boy Scouts.” There are many U.S. federal government employees, at various agencies and with a wide range of ranks and responsibilities, portrayed in the miniseries, including Richard Clarke (Michael Stuhlbarg),  National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism and the chief counterterrorism adviser on the United States National Security Council for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, FBI agent Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim), and Kathy Shaughnessy (Virginia Kull), a member of the FBI’s I-49 team. There’s international help from various countries, as well, including the role played by Yemeni Gen. Qamish (Ali Suliman), who assists FBI agents O’Neill and Soufan in their investigation of the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000.

There are also the more ambiguous roles played in the 9/11 drama by senior U.S. officials, including the somewhat slippery CIA Director George Tenet (Alec Baldwin), who does not hinder the efforts to find bin Laden before September 11, but also does not encourage much interagency collaboration with the FBI. Condoleeza Rice (Elsa Davis), George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor, seems more interested in arranging self-promotional interviews with the media than meeting with the soon-to-be-demoted counterterrorism director, Clarke, to discuss the possibility of an Al-Qaeda attack on the U.S. homeland.

Episode Guide

  1. “Now it Begins…” Chief of the FBI’s counterterrorism unit, John O’Neill, invites rookie Muslim-American agent, Ali Soufan, onto his squad. Fighting to get information from the CIA, they soon realize their work is just beginning as US embassies are bombed.
  2. “Losing My Religion”  Following the simultaneous embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the FBI begins its investigation on the ground while the CIA starts working on a retaliation plan.
  3. Mistakes Were Made The FBI finds one of the surviving terrorists and discovers a game-changing lead in Nairobi, while the CIA’s retaliation plan is approved.
  4. Mercury Continuing to keep information from the FBI, Schmidt is fired from Alec Station. Diane makes an important discovery about the owner of the phone number al-Owhali gave Chesney. 
  5. Y2K  The CIA and FBI are on high alert as threats surrounding the new millennium abound. O’Neill and Soufan raid an al-Qaeda cell in New York City. The CIA continues to hide vital information from the FBI.
  6. Boys at War Vince continues asking for permission to share Al-Mihdhar’s visa with the FBI. O’Neill loses his briefcase and an investigation into his handling of classified materials begins
  7. The General O’Neill and Soufan travel to Yemen to begin the investigation into the bombing of the USS Cole. The FBI becomes aware of a meeting in Malaysia and of Khallad.
  8. A Very Special Relationship Everyone adjusts to a new president and, with it, a shift in threat priority. Soufan learns of the importance of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard and is refused access to him. O’Neill is denied re-entry into Yemen and forced to resign. The terrorists in the US, Al-Hazmi, Al-Mihdhar and Atta, are lost by their US handler.
  9. Tuesday The CIA becomes aware that Al-Hazmi and Al-Mihdhar are gone and must relay that to the FBI. O’Neill accepts a job as head of security at the World Trade Center. Soufan is sent back to Yemen. 
  10. 9/11 It is September 11, 2001 and no one can get a hold of O’Neill. Soufan’s evacuation from Yemen stops short as the CIA station chief gives him all the answers he has been asking from the CIA for months. 

(Episode Summaries: Hulu)

My Take

As any serious student of history – especially the history of military and intelligence blunders throughout the 20th and early 21st Centuries – knows, many of the man-made tragedies that Americans have experienced in modern times have, as their root causes, interservice/interagency rivalry and human failings such as pride, jealousy, lust, and egotism. The American failure to prepare the Pacific Fleet and the Hawaiian Department for a Japanese carrier raid on Pearl Harbor, the failures by the FBI and CIA to nab Lee Harvey Oswald before November 22, 1963, the Pentagon’s institutional blindness to the realities on the ground in Vietnam, and the ridiculously inept performance by the U.S. intelligence community as a whole to prevent the September 11 attacks are prime examples of these “epic fails.”

For millions of Americans alive during the period depicted in The Looming Tower, the chain of events that culminated in Al-Qaeda’s largest and most successful terrorist attack on U.S. soil is painful. Not just because over 3000 men, women, and children died on that tragic Tuesday 19 years ago, but because 9/11 succeeded in achieving at least one of bin Laden’s goals: to goad the United States into a series of conflicts that is collectively known as the Global War on Terror.

From bin Laden’s jihadist mindset, the point of 9/11 wasn’t just to force the American people to petition their government to withdraw all U.S. forces from Muslim lands and end support for Israel, although those are tenets in radical Islam shared by ISIS and all like-minded terrorist groups. The larger objective of attacking the West was to hasten the clash of civilization between the people of Islam and the unbelievers, a clash that will – say its proponents – end with the establishment of a world-wide Islamic caliphate.

When 9/11 occurred, I was shocked by the enormity of the attack: four airliners hijacked by 19 terrorists…the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon struck by three of the jets…a fourth target saved by the brave actions of the passengers aboard United Flight 93 (at the cost of their lives as well as the terrorists that hijacked the plane)…and the time chosen for the attack, which coincided with the morning news shows on national television. Shocked, saddened, angry, but not surprised.

Richard Clarke (Michael Stuhlbarg) testifies before the 9/11 Commision in 2004. Photo Credit and (C) 2018 Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, Hulu, and Legendary Television.

Like National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism Richard Clarke. I suspected that a major attack by Middle Eastern terrorists would take place in the United States at some point after Osama bin Laden declared a jihad against the country in the late 1990s. I studied journalism in college and I like to keep up with current events, and after the Al-Qaeda bombings of two American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, 1998 and the suicide bombing attack on the USS Cole on October 12, 2000 in the port of Aden, I had a bad feeling that we’d be next. I was a child when Palestinian terrorists and like-minded groups emerged in the late Sixties and early Seventies and remembered Munich and the Air France hijacking in the summer of 1976 that ended with the spectacular Israeli rescue mission at Entebbe (Uganda). From my perspective, we had dodged the bullet of global Islamic terrorism for far longer than I expected.

But why was the American intelligence community caught with its collective pants down on 9/11, especially when Osama bin Laden declared war on the U.S. five years earlier? Did the CIA and the FBI think he was joking?

As The Looming Tower – which only covers a section of Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 – shows, the CIA and FBI took Osama bin Laden at his word and attempted to find and stop him and his group from making a successful terrorist act on the U.S. itself. What the two agencies failed to do, though, was to cooperate and put interagency rivalries aside.

FBI agent Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim), girlfriend Heather (Ella Rae Peck), unnamed FBI agent (Jarrod Labine), John O’Neill’s girlfriend Liz (Annie Parisse), and FBI Special Agent John O”Neill (Jeff Daniels) at his retirement party in New York. Photo Credit and (C) 2018 Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, Hulu, and Legendary Television.

Interagency rivalries are not unique to the American intelligence community. Every government in the world sees intramural squabbles over budgets, appropriations, manpower, and resources that everyone wants but aren’t enough of to distribute fairly. National defense establishments are notoriously competitive, especially in democracies where the military-industrial complex vies for taxpayer dollars with competing interests such as social security and other safety net programs, civilian space exploration, national resource conservation, and infrastructure investment.

But the pre-9/11 rivalry between the two agencies tasked to protect Americans from terrorists like bin Laden was petty and toxic. As the miniseries’ Americanvillains” (for lack of a better term), Martin Schmidt and Diane Marsh of the CIA’s Alec Station aren’t necessarily evil individuals, but their single-minded obsession with cutting out their colleagues at the FBI from relevant intel related to Al-Qaeda was unprofessional, unethical, and immoral.

It doesn’t help matters any that Jeff Daniels’ character, John O’Neill, didn’t get along with Alec Station’s leaders at Langley or with his own superiors in New York and Washington. An Irish Catholic who turned his back on the Church years ago, has several girlfriends, and lives so much above his means as an FBI agent that his superiors worry that O’Neill may be a security risk. Schmidt and Marsh hate O’Neill, and apparently the feeling is mutual.

There are, of course, American protagonists who fit the TV hero trope. Here it’s Tahar Rahim’s Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-American in his mid-20s who tells his boss and mentor that he joined the FBI on a dare after graduating from college. “I couldn’t decide if what would keep me out (of the FBI) was my drinking, or my Arab heritage,” he says at one point. He even bet that the FBI would reject him, to which O’Neill says, “Here’s to losing.”

Soufan is a dedicated FBI agent and his story arc includes a tentative romance with a special education teacher from Ohio named Heather (Ella Rae Peck), which is made difficult by the demands of his career, as well as an inner struggle to reclaim his Islamic faith while hunting down those who have hijacked his religion in their terror campaign against the “evil Zionists” and their “crusader” puppets. Although he is not blind to his boss’ human flaws, he respects O’Neill’s dedication to his job and is outraged when he discovers that the FBI’s supposed partner in the fight against bin Laden is withholding valuable intel that can help stop the “bad guys.”

But TLT doesn’t just look at how badly the U.S. bungled the effort to find bin Laden and limit any damage Al-Qaeda could inflict on American soil. It also looks at how hard-working most of the men and women in law enforcement and in the intelligence world were, and the many risks they took – and still take – to fight foreign and domestic threats to American national security.

 And because Lawrence Wright’s book is primarily about Al-Qaeda and the preparations for 9/11, TLT looks at some of the terror group’s members as well, including its present leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri (Nasser Faris), Mohamad al-Owhali (Youssef Berouain),Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (Ibrahim Renno), and Mohammed Atta (Dhaffer L’Abidine). Osama bin Laden also is seen in archival footage cleverly edited so that in at least one scene, he interacts with an actor (C.J. Wilson) playing ABC News reporter John Miller, who interviewed bin Laden in 1996.     

The Looming Tower is smartly written and fast-paced. It is a realistic presentation about how intelligence agencies work, not just on the “sexy” espionage and anti-terrorist action front, but also on the less-savory (from a TV watcher’s point of view) political and bureaucratic aspects of life at both the CIA and FBI.

And for a drama with a 9/11 focus, it spares viewers from graphic recreations of the hijackers’ actions on that terrible late summer day in 2001. We are shown some of the preparations for the attack, of course, as well as news footage of the aftermath, but we don’t see the planes hit the Twin Towers or the Pentagon, or the frantic attempt by passengers to retake the cockpit of United 93 above Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

TLT is definitely worth watching, especially by those viewers who are too young to remember 9/11; an entire generation has nearly passed since the events of that day, and kids who were born in 2000 or 2001 are now starting college or joining the military to fight in the  global war on terror that began when the Twin Towers (and part of the Pentagon) fell.  The acting is terrific – I almost hated actors Peter Sarsgaard and Wrenn Schmidt for playing the senior CIA officials who prioritized interagency rivalry over national security, even though they believed they did so in the national interest – and the scripts by Dan Futterman, Ali Selim, Bash Doran, Adam Rapp, and Shannon Houston are excellently written.

The miniseries was made for a streaming channel and not for a standard broadcast or cable network, so TLT is rated TV-MA for language, violence, and sexual content. Parental discretion is strongly advised.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

3 thoughts on “TV Miniseries Review: ‘The Looming Tower’

  1. Wow. This sounds like something I would like. Maybe I’ll do an episode by episode analysts since it’s so short. Coming up on 19 years is kind of freaky. I just edited a review from 2003 that was about the Gaudet brothers documentary.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You probably would like it, I certainly did, even though it irked me that people at CIA could be so narrow-minded, petty, and outright dishonest.

      Obviously, the series comes with the usual disclaimer that many characters are composites and that some scenes are dramatized, but still….

      Like

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