Would you believe a senior FBI official correctly identified the threat on US soil from al-Qaeda, was rejected by his bosses, found work as the World Trade Centre’s head of security and died on his first day at work in the attacks of September 11, 2001?
The Looming Tower, one of the best things I’ve seen on TV, is based on the true story of how the United States failed to prevent the September 11 attacks despite having every opportunity. A fatal rivalry between the CIA and FBI led to spiteful cover-ups, as al-Qaeda built an international attack force and bombed US embassies in Africa, then the USS Cole.
But it’s not just an important retelling of history. The characters in this story leave a lasting impression. They’re raw and realistic. You’ll care what happens.
My favourite is a minor character called Robert Chesney (played with a messy tie by Bill Camp), a handy FBI interrogator about to retire, who is caught in the Nairobi bombing. Apparently he’s a composite of about four real people, and I’d love to have a yarn with them all.
But if you’ve seen Zero Dark Thirty, you may be more fascinated with Diane Marsh (Wrenn Schmidt), a CIA agent very similar to that movie’s main character “Maya” (Jessica Chastain). Both are based on multiple real-life CIA agents – notably fellow redhead Alfreda Frances Bikowsky – but the two portrayals are polar opposites. You’ll wonder: is one closer to the truth?
At the centre of the story is John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels), the aforementioned senior FBI official, a counter-terrorism chief whose warnings about Osama bin Laden’s network were rejected. A flawed character, he is unfaithful to his wife, unfaithful to his mistress, abusive of credit cards and proudly unhealthy to the last. You’ll still want them to find him safe and well on the last day.
But the real main character is Ali Soufan (played by multilingual French actor Tahar Rahim), who co-produced the series. You may now want to follow him on Twitter. Soufan worked for O’Neill in the FBI and really did come closer than anyone to preventing the September 11 attacks. His difficult new relationship with school teacher Heather (Ella Rae Peck), who would become his wife, is portrayed with a lovely empathy.
The action switches often to characters within the al-Qaeda network, from a very realistic-looking Ayman al-Zawahiri (Nasser Faris), to a young boy called Walla (Mohamad Ashraf) caught in a US attack on civilians in an abandoned terrorist base, to Mohamed Atta (Dhafer L’Abidine) and his September 11 cohort of hijackers learning to fly.
The worst character, I’m afraid, is the dyed white hair (and eyebrows) on dark-haired actor Michael Stuhlbarg, as US National Security Council boss Richard Clarke. His acting is great, but the hair keeps overdoing it. Keep watching regardless.
Eighteen years on, as the repercussions of the War on Terror continue to shape world politics and the US remains fighting in Afghanistan, these characters add a context to subsequent events. Real testimony from the 9/11 Commission which investigated the September 11 attacks is also shown, along with news stories from the time.
If nothing else, you’ll gain an awareness of why you should pay more attention to the quality of your shoes. It’s no surprise to me that a 2018 profile of Soufan in The Guardian newspaper noted “his boots are the most pristine I have ever seen”.
The Looming Tower screens Wednesdays at 8:30pm on SBS, and each episode is available to stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast. You can watch episode one now.
We're back after a lengthy break, to dissect Quentin Tarantino's handling of the contentious matter of Sharon Tate's fate during the swinging sixties. Is the pre-release outrage justifiable? We'll let you know, in as spoiler-free a way as possible. Elsewhere, we talk about what we've been watching during out hiatus.