When Lawrence Wright’s book “The Looming Tower” was published in 2006, it was a seminal event. Finally, we got to see how far back America’s crimes went in the eyes of some in the lead-up to 9/11.
In the three hours made available to critics, the internal war back at home between the FBI and CIA before 9/11 is just as riveting as anything happening in Africa or the Middle East. Unlike the book, the actions of the terrorists who would flatten the World Trade Center twin towers one September day take a backseat to the inter-agency warfare at home.
In one corner, it’s Jeff Daniels as John O’Neill, swaggering head of the FBI’s I-49 counter-terrorism squad in New York; in the other, Peter Sarsgaard as Martin Schmidt, arrogant chief of the CIA’s al-Qaida unit in Washington. The inability of these two operations to work together might have paved the way for the attack in New York City in 2001, the show implies.
Watching O’Neill and Schmidt go after each other’s turf, as well as each other’s influence with President Bill Clinton and his national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection and counter-terrorism, Richard A. Clarke, is at the heart of the first three hours.
Back then, the polite term for not sharing data was called smokestacking, and in “The Looming Tower’s” telling, the CIA is the worst offender. Whatever the term, it was the product of male egos out of control.
As you watch, you can’t help but wish Team Clinton had been more focused on controlling these egos than it was dealing with the fallout from the president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. The series makes the connection between these two spheres of concern.
The other strong storyline in “The Looming Tower” is that of Ali Soufan. Tahar Rahim plays the young Muslim-American FBI agent on O’Neill’s squad who becomes the older man’s protege in the hunt for al-Qaida.
There is plenty of footage of Osama bin Laden and the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Actual archival footage is skillfully blended with staged action, making it hard to sometimes find the seams between the documentary and drama parts of this series.
It took almost 12 years for the book to make it to the screen. It looks like somebody cared about trying to get it right.