Charting the origins of Osama Bin Laden and the formation of al-Qaeda from the 1990s through to the tragic events that unfolded on September the 11th, “The Looming Tower” is a real-life historical “Homeland”. It peers behind the intelligence curtain and reveals the internal squabbles and intense rivalry between the FBI and the CIA that ultimately lead to the downfall of the World Trade Centre and the demise of thousands of people on that fateful day.
To say that a monumental burden rested on showrunner Alex Gibney’s shoulders to deliver a respectful, tasteful and serious docudrama on a subject that has dominated and distorted world foreign policy ever since would be a major understatement. The good news is that drawing on his considerable past documentary filmmaking experience, he has managed to retell an engrossing story, seamlessly blending historical footage with dramatic re-enactments. Even during the inevitable, unavoidable finale, when the planes have been hijacked and are poised to strike, you find yourself on the edge of your seat, especially when one of the main characters elects to put themselves in the gravest of positions.
For the FBI we have John O’Neill (played by Jeff Daniels), the head of New York’s FBI Counterterrorism Team, a world-class womaniser who would have been promoted years ago had it not been for his lack of a professional filter. Supporting John O’Neill is Ali Soufan (played magnificently by Tahar Rahim) who is arguably the most important operative in the FBI’s recent history, but to elucidate further would spoil the ride. The ever-reliable Bill Camp plays fictional FBI operative Robert Chesney who is the show’s muscle and man on the ground when Soufan or O’Neill need to gather intel (a bit like a moustachioed Quinn from “Homeland”).
In the CIA corner, we have fictional analyst Martin Schmidt (played by Peter Sarsgaard), something like the villain of the piece, keen to withhold anything and everything from the FBI in order to leverage his own operations and gain more budget from Congress.
All of the other 9/11 Commission supporting players are accounted for with aplomb. Alec Baldwin plays George Tenet, Head of the CIA and the man responsible for keeping the FBI and CIA in their respective boxes as much as possible. Eisa Davis plays a reserved Condoleezza Rice, who comes across as indecisive and at times naïve. But the pick of the bunch is Michael Stuhlbarg as Dick Clarke, ear to the President and the person both O’Neill and Schmidt desperately try to woo with their differing opinions on how to tackle this rising new terrorist organisation.
“The Looming Tower” expertly chronicles the key events in the uprising of al-Qaeda from the CNN interview with Osama Bin Laden, the 1998 US Embassy attack in Tanzania and Nairobi and the attack on the USS Cole, through to the outcome of the 2002 congressional hearing on 9/11.
Watch this if you liked: “Homeland”, “Zero Dark Thirty”, “The West Wing”