What To Watch This Weekend: The Looming Tower

What To Watch This Weekend: The Looming Tower

Based on Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Emmy-nominated drama The Looming Tower tells the story of the rising threat of al-Qaeda in the late 1990s and how the rivalry between the FBI and CIA during that time may have inadvertently set the path for the tragedy of 9/11. Gripping from the off, here’s why the series is well worth a watch…

What’s the series about?

A ten-part series, The Looming Tower is based on al-Qaeda’s plot to bring down the Twin Towers in 2001. Published in 2006, the book is the definitive account of the run-up to 9/11: from the man who lit the spark of radical Islam in 1948 to those who built up a terror network, and the FBI agent whose warnings of 'something big' coming were ignored until the World Trade Center fell.

Aired in the US to rave reviews – and Emmy nominations – last year, this Friday BBC2 will show the drama on British soil for the first time. Starting in 1998, the show follows members of the I-49 Squad in New York – the counter-terrorism division of the FBI – and Alec Station in Langley, Virginia – the counter-terrorism faction of the CIA – as they travel the world fighting for ownership of information while seemingly working towards the same goal: trying to prevent an imminent attack on US soil.

Who stars in it?

Godless and Dumb & Dumber star Jeff Daniels plays John O’Neill, the bull-headed chief of the I-49 Squad who is convinced the US has been targeted for an attack by al-Qaeda. Chain-smoking, womanising O’Neill is joined by his protégé, Muslim-American FBI agent Ali Soufan, played by the brilliant Tahar Rahim. This is the French actor’s first big US production, a decade after his success in award-winning film A Prophet, and is a role he plays with relish, subverting opinions on what it is to be Muslim within his team. It is Soufan who recognizes that a TV interview given by al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin laden is a final warning before retribution against the US is unleashed.

The pair face deliberately insufficient cooperation from their counter-terrorism counterparts within the CIA, which is led by antagonistic, cardigan-wearing Martin Schmidt (An Education’s Peter Sarsgaard, on top form here). Convinced he’s by far the smartest person in the room, Schmidt, along with his Alec Station acolyte Diane Marsh (Outcast’s Wrenn Schmidt), opt to weasel around presidential orders and hoard information from the FBI, believing that the CIA is the only government agency equipped to battle potential terror threats from abroad.

The cast is joined by Molly’s Game and Vice actor Bill Camp, who plays well-seasoned FBI agent Bob Chesney and National Security co-ordinator Richard Clarke (Call Me By Your Name and The Shape Of Water’s Michael Stuhlbarg) who is pushed to confirm the CIA is launching a raid in Albania.

Will I like it?

Hulu’s second output after the phenomenally successful The Handmaid’s Tale, this is another drama that hits the mark, albeit in a different way. Here, it’s a man’s world, and women – whether they’re lovers or low-ranking teammates – are demoted to minor characters. That it’s all set against the backdrop of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, tells you everything you need to know when it comes to both workplace attitudes and the fact that the US government seems strangely distracted from the very real threats the show focuses on.

Still, this odd misogyny doesn’t detract from the drama at play. Throughout, we know exactly how this story is going to end, which makes the ever-present bickering between the two rival teams all the more infuriating. It also makes for some thrilling interrogation scenes. Perfect timing, given that Line of Duty is about to disappear for another year.

If you love Homeland – which is coming to an end this year – and all the espionage escapades that come with it, this is a great replacement. By mixing New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright’s gripping source material with showrunner Dan Futterman (whose scripts for Capote and Foxcatcher both garnered Oscar nominations) and exec producer Alex Gibney (the documentary maker behind Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Scientology doc Going Clear and Netflix docuseries Dirty Money), The Looming Tower offers a thrilling peek behind the curtain of some of the most secretive organisations in the US – at one of their lowest moments.

Watch weekly on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer from Friday 26th April at 9:30pm

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