As with any historical drama inspired by actual events, the Looming Tower has the challenge of keeping an audience interested in a story where they already know the ending. In this case, it is the tragic terrorist attacks that occurred on U.S. soil on September 11, 2001. Everyone already knows that the attacks on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers were not stopped by the CIA nor the FBI. However, the Looming Tower, based off its namesake of the non-fiction book written by Lawrence Wright, portrays how discord between the two organizations led to the myriad of chaotic occurrences that collectively will forever be known as 9/11.
The episode drops right into 1998 with a cold open consisting of a book with a hard drive hidden in the pages being passed from person to person. Just as a man is about to read the information off the drive, a band of CIA operatives seize him and the disk. Without warning, the audience is next thrust into the future, post 9/11, where Muslim FBI agent Ali Soufan is testifying before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States that the CIA never disclosed information on the disk that could have prevented 9/11.
In the most frustrating dick-measuring contest ever, Martin Schmidt (head of the counter-terrorism unit Alec Station of the CIA) refuses to admit that he is in possession of the disk with Al-Qaeda intelligence on it at a debriefing hearing with John O’Neal (head of the counter-terrorism unit I-49 of the FBI) and Richard Clarke (the National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism). Schmidt is under the misguided philosophy that the CIA should solely be in charge of threats from abroad since the FBI (in his mind) is only good for arresting people and putting them on trial before they can be utilized as sources of vital foreign intelligence.
Frustrated, O’Neal decides to launch his own investigation and sends FBI agent Robert Chesney to Nairobi, Kenya to question a former secretary to Osama Bin Laden. Chesney secures a computer with information that prompts O’Neal to send Soufan to Tirana, Albania. Along with other agents, Soufan captures four terrorists active in the Albanian terror cell. Despite this siege in Albania, however, the Al-Qaeda co-founder, Ayman AL-Zawahiri, bands terrorists together in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Nairobi, Kenya, and Tirana, Albania in order to send suicide bombers to the US Embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania. The episode aptly ends with O’Neal proclaiming to Soufan, “Now it begins.”
Full disclosure: I was in 7th grade when 9/11 happened. I am not as well versed as I probably should be on what are the actual facts and what are the dramatizations that the disclaimer mentions at the beginning of the episode. Much like my critique of other historical dramas, there is the risk of people taking the events in the show as 100% fact even with a disclaimer. However, I fear this risk is even greater since it covers recent events which many of the target audience actually lived through. With so many conspiracy theories already surrounding the tragic events of 9/11, I worry this show may only add to the false information that is out there. However, with this being based on a piece of non-fictional writing, hopefully this show is more fact than fiction.
The episode did become “too real” at one point. It was quite jarring when the actual footage of Bin Laden’s interview with ABC correspondent John Miller was juxtaposed with the dramatized depiction of events. With a face that now renders so much terror and pain in the heart of Americans, it was surprising to see the real Bin Laden’s face displayed on the screen. I instantly became nostalgic for the days before September 11, 2011.
Additionally, the overall pace of the show was quite fast and hard to keep up with at times. The show jumps from location to location throughout the episode as well through different time periods. One example of this is when the audience was taken to Tanzania, Kenyan, and Albania in a matter of seconds to demonstrate how wide spread the terrorist cell operations were. This transition was a little too quick to really get settled into what was happening in the scenes. It is due to this quick pace that is imperative to watch the show with closed captioning in order to keep up with all the characters and suspects mentioned throughout the episode.
In dealing with such a heavy subject matter, it is impressive that The Looming Tower still has moments of humor and intrigue. With the bearded Schmidt’s team consisting of him and a group of women, I-49 agents facetiously refer to the Alec Station as the Manson family. Additionally, Chesney’s banter with the wife of Bin Laden’s former secretary on the ungrammatical name of her husband’s non-profit organization (Help Africa People) was quite amusing.
Even more compelling in the surprising reveal that O’Neal has paramours in different area codes. A powerful man having affairs is not front-page news, but the way the episode is played, the audience is first compelled to believe that Mrs. O’Neil is a seductive poetry lover who gets slighted in order for John to visit his less refined mistress. However, it’s not until the end of the episode in which it is revealed that O’Neil is married to another woman with two young girls and the first two are the “other women.” John’s multiple lives revealed in this way in comparison to the trope of the wife finding hotel receipts in his pants pocket leaves the audience wanting to know more about this flawed character.
- Right before his testimony to the commission, Soufan is seen praying to Allah. In 1998, he confides in O’Neal that he doesn’t really practice Islam. I wonder if the senseless events of 9/11 led him back to seeking answers from a higher power.
- While the FBI and CIA are gathering concerning intel oversees, the American public and media is more concerned with the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton and the stains on Monica Lewinsky’s dress.
- I was unaware that Osama Bin Laden came from a wealthy Saudi family worth $5 billion.
- The rigid John O’Neal enjoys the smooth RB stylings of Tony Braxton’s “You are the World to Me”
Not a binge watcher? No problem. All ten episodes of The Looming Tower are available now on Hulu, but Project Fandom will be reviewing one episode each week every Thursday.
The Looming Tower Episode 1 Review Score
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Tahar Rahim, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nezar Alderazi, Sullivan Jones, Erica Cho, Katie Flahive