‘The Looming Tower’ brings 9/11 mishaps to TV


NEW YORK: Published 12 years ago, the best-selling and Pulitzer-prize winning book The Looming Tower remains a definitive account of US intelligence failures that littered the path to the September 11, 2001 attacks.

On Wednesday it aired as a television mini-series, narrating the power struggle between the CIA and the FBI, whose refusal to cooperate may have prevented the world’s greatest superpower from failing to stop 19 Al-Qaeda hijackers training at US flight schools and smashing passenger jets into New York and Washington, killing nearly 3,000 people.

The 10 episodes of roughly 50 minutes each are being released in the United States on Hulu from Wednesday and will be available on Amazon Prime from March 1 in other English-speaking countries and from March 9 for everyone else.

The TV series trace the rising threat of Al-Qaeda and puts a rarified CIA pressing for pre-emptive military action on a collision course with the law enforcement muscle of the FBI, which together failed to avert the world’s deadliest terror attack, ushering in wars still being fought today.

The Looming Tower mini-series begins in 1998, shortly before the Al-Qaeda bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 224 people, and closed on September 11, 2001, that date seared into global infamy.

The drama romps from Afghanistan to London, from Nairobi to Washington, spliced with archive footage of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire outcast who founded Al-Qaeda.

Shooting took place across three continents and six countries, with the bulk of filming in New York, Morocco and Johannesburg, in not altogether convincing efforts to portray the Hindu Kush or an Al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan.

Woven in are period features from the late 1990s. The Monica Lewinsky scandal engulfing a distracted Clinton presidency is a constant backdrop. Look out for chunky cell phones, green-screen computers and sexist dialogue in the workplace.

Lawrence Wright, the New Yorker journalist who wrote the book, shares an executive producing credit with Dan Futterman and Oscar-winning documentary maker Alex Gibney.

Early reviews are largely positive, predicting it will be Hulu’s second major success after The Handmaid´s Tale and tipped for future awards.

Jeff Daniels, 63, plays the lead role of John O’Neill, the charismatic ladies man and bull-in-a-china-shop agent who heads up the FBI’s counter-terrorism unit in New York, with a side-line in mistresses, bunches of flowers and cheap one-liners. Not to forget, a wife and two daughters as well.

His foil is Martin Schmidt, the arrogant and aloof head of the CIA’s Al-Qaeda unit played by Peter Sarsgaard, who believes the agency alone has the smarts to halt Al-Qaeda and who defies presidential orders to withhold intelligence from the FBI.

The other starring role is real-life character Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-born Muslim and one of only eight Arabic speakers among more than 10,000 FBI agents, who goes undercover and is acted without a trace of French accent by Tahar Rahim.

“I thought I knew what happened, but you read Lawrence’s books… you realize you don’t,” Daniels told a recent press event in Paris. “You don’t know the real story. That’s why I took the role,” he explained.

The real O’Neill was killed on September 11 at the World Trade Center, where he became head of security after leaving the FBI.

To prep for his role, Daniels immersed himself in Soufan and his FBI partners. “They were very helpful so I had a pretty good painting of what he was,” he explained.

Rahim, 36, said it was meeting the real Soufan that persuaded him to take on the role, initially thinking “it was going to be one of those terrorist roles that I get offered a lot.”

For many viewers, those days might feel like yesterday. But for younger audiences and those weighed down by a very different America, wearied by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and with Donald Trump as president, it feels like another world.

“This show is the least of America’s problems right now,” Daniels said in Paris.

“I think 9/11 happened when we had a fully staffed government, with brilliant, knowledgeable, experienced competent people and 9/11 still happened. Now you can take out brilliant, knowledgeable, experienced, competent… I don’t like our chances.”