The Looming Tower: Amazon’s star-studded 9/11 drama struggles to equal the sum of its parts

Actors Peter Sarsgaard, Jeff Daniels and Michael Stuhlbarg are a potent combination, with talent behind the camera to match – so why does it feel like something's missing?

(Amazon Prime Video, JG)

The level of talent behind Amazon’s new 10-part miniseries, The Looming Tower – a drama inspired by the real-life infighting between the FBI and the CIA in the years leading up to the 9/11 attacks – is staggering.

Advertisement

Helmed by a three-pronged team of Alex Gibney (director of incisive scientology documentary Going Clear), Dan Futterman (Capote screenwriter) and Lawrence Wright, the author behind the Pulitzer prize-winning non-fiction book the series is based on, it also features top level performances from Jeff Daniels, Peter Sarsgaard and newcomer Tahar Rahim.

For this reason, it’s all the more disappointing that, certain high points aside, the series never quite equals the sum of its parts.

There is little doubting the power of the story itself – Wright’s lauded account presents compelling insights into the levels of paranoia that surrounded the growth of Al Qaeda in the late 1990s, and the missteps of United States intelligence agencies that, it is suggested, might have contributed to the organisation’s accelerated growth during that period.

And, for the most part, this works quite well on screen. The fallout from 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam and the differing perspectives of CIA analysts and FBI agents in how the threat of Osama Bin Ladan (referred to, throughout the drama, as UBL) should be dealt with have dramatic and emotional heft.

It is when the writers attempt to fill in the dramatic blanks that the series falls down: the cheesy, scarcely believable masculine banter (on more than one occasion, they tell one another to “blow me”) between government operatives, and the fictionalised accounts of their personal lives. Jeff Daniels’ protagonist John O’Neill (a real life FBI operative who died in the 9/11 attacks) is a shadow of a quipping philanderer who doesn’t have a patch on the Don Drapers and Walter Whites to which his creators clearly owe a debt.

THE LOOMING TOWER -- "Now it Begins..." - Episode 101 - The chief of the FBI’s counter-terrorism unit, John O’Neill, invites rookie Muslim-American agent, Ali Soufan, onto his squad. Fighting to get information from the CIA, they soon realize their work is just beginning… as two American embassies are bombed. John O'Neill (Jeff Daniels), shown. (Photo by: JoJo Whilden/Hulu)

Elsewhere, a short-lived love story is spun up between Bill Camp’s FBI counterterrorism agent Robert Chesney and an embassy worker in Nairobi, which feels like an unnecessary attempt to add emotional heft to the tragedy.

Tahar Rahim, who is set to star as Judas Escariot in Lion director Garth Davis’ upcoming biblical drama Mary Magdalene, is the real breakout here, as Lebanese-American FBI agent Ali Soufan. It is in his company that the drama is most compelling, exploring his fractured relationship with the religion of Islam.

Tahar Rahim (Amazon Prime Video, JG)
Tahar Rahim as FBI agent Ali Soufan in The Looming Tower (Amazon Prime Video)

In one particular scene, he erupts at a British-Muslim shop owner who has been suspected of conspiring in the embassy attacks for calling him “brother”, and assuming a level of kinship. It is the exploration of this conflict, between heritage and ideology, that could, in later episodes, elevate the drama beyond cheesy mediocrity.

Advertisement

The Looming Tower debuts on Amazon Prime Video on Thursday 1st March