Amazon’s 9/11 series, The Looming Tower, has two fantastic performances at its heart

Plus, new Netflix documentary series Flint Town.

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I read The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the rise of al-Qaeda and the events that led to the September 11 attacks, soon after it came out in 2006. And while the multifarious facts (so many facts!) may not all have stuck with me permanently, the book’s essence imprinted itself on my brain.

I think about it most often when I’m travelling. In Cairo for work three years ago, it floated into my mind unbidden as I sat in a taxi in thick, honking traffic, and for a few moments I felt distinctly queasy. It’s almost a physical thing: the feeling Wright gives you that the clock might, at some point, have been turned back; that we could have avoided all this mess, this endless bloody mayhem.

It would be something of an understatement, then, to say that I was doubtful at the prospect of US streaming service Hulu’s new adaptation (available in the UK via Amazon Prime). Could a book so fiendishly complex and grave really be turned into a successful TV drama? What would it be like? I pictured, gloomily, Showtime’s Homeland, with all its easy polarities.

It was vaguely reassuring to know that The Looming Tower’s makers would include both Wright and the documentary maker, Alex Gibney (Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room), with whom he has successfully collaborated in the past (also, Dan Futterman, the screenwriter of Capote and Foxcatcher). But when the first episode opened with a warning that characters had been “composited” – this is the American for “are composites” – I feared the worst.

Was I wrong to be anxious? It’s possible, yes. On the evidence of the first episode, it is quite a gripping series, and there are two fantastic performances at its heart: Jeff Daniels is wonderfully ripe and determined as the FBI counter-terrorism expert John O’Neill; and Peter Sarsgaard (my man!) is deliciously creepy and sly as the professorial CIA analyst Martin Schmidt (the latter absolutely refuses to share intelligence with the former, on the grounds that O’Neill’s blunter approach may damage his long-watched gold mine).

The view is necessarily shorter, analysis having been abandoned in favour of storytelling; while Wright’s book goes right back to the outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the late 1940s, here we pick up events just before the ghastly warning that came with the bombing of the American embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998. Still, I’d call this justified collateral damage rather than a major loss. A few things, however, don’t work at all. The writers have had a go at giving their mostly male characters back stories – the priapic O’Neill, for instance, runs two mistresses alongside his wife – presumably because, had they not, the series would have wanted for a single female character. But their efforts feel cursory. There’s also a lot of side talk about what’s going on in Washington: Monica Lewinsky’s dress gets a full, smeary namecheck, the better to remind us that Clinton and Co. were quite distracted at this point. Again, though, this stuff is dashed off – too perfunctory to be effective.

Will The Looming Tower get the same kind of press for Hulu as The Handmaid’s Tale? Almost certainly not, though this isn’t to say that its carefulness and balance in the matter of the mistakes made by the US isn’t a noble thing. Better a publicity damp squib, I think, than yet more fuzzy propaganda.

On Netflix, a new documentary series, Flint Town, has film-makers embedded with the police of Flint, Michigan, a city brought to its knees by industrial decline, poverty, violence and a water scandal (in 2015, the supply was found to be dangerously contaminated with lead). It’s desperately miserable, of course; if you binged on this one, you’d have to take to your bed before long. But it’s also a bit flabby. Enamoured as I am with the plucky Bridgette Balasko, an officer who, like all police in under-resourced Flint, must drive around in her cop car alone, there is something stretched out about it, a feeling of time being used up rather than of a story being well told. Netflix needs to watch this. The sprawl is starting to get to this subscriber, for one. 

The Looming Tower (Amazon)
Flint Town (Netflix)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 08 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war

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