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Review: The Looming Tower (2018)

The Looming Tower (2018)

Created by: Dan Futterman, Alex Gibney, Lawrence Wright

Premise: A television miniseries about the events leading up to the September 11th terrorist attack. The counterterrorism division of the FBI investigates Al-Qaeda while feuding with the CIA unit searching for Osama bin Laden.

What Works: The Looming Tower takes place over about three years, starting just before the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and ending shortly after the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The story is told in ten parts, each about an hour in length. The Looming Tower covers a lot of ground both geographically and expositorily and this is a good example of what the miniseries can do better than a conventional feature film. In a single feature or even a two-part series of films, this story would have to be streamlined and the character detail would almost certainly be lost. The episodic structure and the screen time of the miniseries give the filmmakers the space to tell this story in all of its detail while retaining the depth and complexity of the characters. The Looming Tower is largely the story of John O’Neill and Ali Soufan. O’Neill, played by Jeff Daniels, was the chief of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Center and Soufan, played by Tahar Rahim, is a Muslim American who joins the antiterrorism unit and much of the story unfolds from his point of view. The two characters are allowed a lot of depth, not all of it flattering. As portrayed in the miniseries, O’Neill was a serial philanderer and a hothead who burned many professional bridges. Soufan is a dedicated Muslim but finds his faith being used to justify atrocities and he is alienated from mainstream American culture but also from his fellow Muslims who view him with suspicion.  Soufan’s story and the miniseries’ portrait of Islam is one of its most successful and most provocative qualities. This is also a thriller and as a piece of dramatic entertainment The Looming Tower succeeds. The filmmakers strike a balance between giving the audience enough expository information and moving the story forward. The path toward the 9/11attack gradually becomes clear but it doesn’t feel inevitable. In that respect, The Looming Tower overcomes one of the pitfalls of dramatic storytelling. We tend to see the past as an inevitable series of events but The Looming Tower gives this piece of history the possibility of deviation that’s necessary for drama. And in the story of the 9/11 attack that is especially important. The attack is often written about and spoken of as a sudden, unforeseeable rupture in the rhythms of day to day life; The Looming Tower refutes that conception by putting the events of September 11, 2001 into a historical context. That context gives the events meaning and allows the audience to make sense of them.

What Doesn’t: Throughout The Looming Tower, the FBI comes off much better than the CIA. Some of that is due to the facts in the case. As depicted in this miniseries, the CIA deliberately obstructed the FBI’s access to critical information. However, the depiction of the CIA staff at Alec Station is slanted to make them seem pathologically unbalanced. And it is curious that Alec Station chief Martin Schmidt, played by Peter Sarsgaard, is a fictional composite character whereas FBI counterterrorism officials John O’Neill and Ali Soufan are based on actual people. And indeed Soufan is credited as a producer on The Looming Tower. As a result, viewers should not regard The Looming Tower as neutral or objective history but as an interpretation of these events from a particular vantage point.

DVD extras: Commentary tracks and featurettes.

Bottom Line: The Looming Tower is a compelling historical thriller. It tells this story well and balances drama with exposition. This miniseries presents the 9/11 attack in a way that isn’t exploitative and allows viewers to see the tragedy in a historical context that allows us to get a handle on the event and what it meant.

Episode: #715 (September 9, 2018)