Warning: The Looming Tower, a Hulu series based on a Lawrence Wright book, is going to make you very mad. An insightful blend of anger will rise up inside you as you watch this highly vivid account of the years leading up to 9/11 and the dysfunction in the United States Government that may-or may not have-led to the disaster.
Then, after you have calmed down and hit a punching bag twenty times with a glass of bourbon storming down your throat, let it settle into you, because Dan Futterman and Alex Gibney have created a dynamic show that should live on for decades. If you think you know what led to that Tuesday morning massacre, you are most likely wrong. While every living soul in the world knows what happened that day, few know why and the intricate background details that weren’t made public until Wright’s detailed account was released.
Wright, who assisted on the show’s creation, picked former FBI bureau New York chief, John O’Neill (a never-better Jeff Daniels), as the show’s moral center. In an interview with The Washington Post, Wright found it fascinating that in the end, “O’Neill didn’t get Bin Laden; Bin Laden got him.” O’Neill saw the power and danger of Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda group mounting before many did, but his warnings fell on deaf ears. By choosing this intense individual as his centerpiece, Wright gives viewers the moral center of the tale. O’Neill is our champion throughout this event, all the way to the bitter end.
The Looming Tower’s power focus lies in the moody, rigid divide between the FBI and the CIA over intelligence barriers starting in 1998 when a United States embassy was bombed in Kenya. The fallout from that event, and how information wasn’t exchanged between the two agencies sworn to protect America, is unfolded and peeled apart in this ten episode series. O’Neill butts heads with CIA chief Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard, a composite character), who would like bombs dropped all over the Middle East to prevent an attack. These are two men hate each other yet quietly seek out the same thing: stop a war before it can even happen.
Ali Soufan (Tahir Rahim), a Muslim-born FBI agent, serves as the carbonation in O’Neill’s water-a more morally civil man who slowly comes undone when he finds out how hard it is to get a sitdown with Bin Laden’s former bodyguard. He becomes close with O’Neill, the two men forming an alliance that knows how long the road is to winning the war against terrorism.
Other standouts are Bill Camp as Robert Chesney, an FBI agent who realized the country was too young for an old man, but couldn’t get out clean. Wrenn Schmidt’s Diane plays the slippery CIA suit that may have mixed files and withheld info from the FBI. Schmidt gives her just enough malice to hate her while wanting to know exactly how much cover-up she participated in.
The events between 1998-2001 are cross-examined in a time-jumping manner, with a White House briefing providing tension before the events jump forward to terrorists taking flight lessons months before the attack.
Michael Stuhlbarg adds a quiet power to Richard Clarke, the man who heard all the noise from the CIA and FBI, yet was powerless in steering the powers that be in the end to make a move. A late scene between Clarke and George Tenet (Alec Baldwin “baldwinning” it up) is so well-played between the actors that you forget this isn’t actually happening in the moment.
The cast carries the dialogue like chefs filleting a piece of Atlantic salmon in a four star restaurant. The script runs like a David Mamet-built engine, with words flying out of the mouth like ammunition from a Tommy Gun. Daniels can do no wrong right now, dominating a stellar cast here with his raging larger-than-life take on a rugged lawman. Imagine Will McAvoy from Newsroom stepping into the bureau and packing an even bigger punch, and you have O’Neill. He made enemies wherever he went because he couldn’t refrain from telling the truth, or at least what he felt needed to be said.
Within the first 15 minutes of the series, Daniels rants about the lack of fluent Arabic agents in the bureau, threatens a rival over withheld intel, and dances to “Come on Eileen”. It’s the kind of titanic performance that’s required to hang with such a titanic subject matter.
Camp has a juicy interaction with a terrorism suspect that heats up slowly like a large pot of water on a medium-heated burned. Camp is the current low-key everyman on the large and small screen right now, slipping in and stealing moments from the leads. He’s very good here. Saarsgard will make you hate Schmidt at first, but you’ll grow to respect his motives.
Will you leave enlightened about 9/11 and what led to its occurrence? Yes. Will it make you feel any better? No. The Looming Tower should enrage your soul, but some pieces of art are supposed to trigger the most sinister of emotions.
Every creation in Hollywood can’t be a feel-good love story with a large helping of syrup draped on top. Some delights are packed cold with a fierce right hand to keep you looking and guessing. If you want answers, this series provides them. Wright’s book was a good read, but there’s something about seeing the Towers again and the events leading up to their downfall that will stir something.
As Daniels recently said in an interview, The Looming Tower should ask a timely question that doesn’t simply surround the theory of whether or not 9/11 could have been avoided; the real deal here is have we learned anything yet nearly 17 years later?
Personally, I think the country got caught with their pants down, taking a threat too lightly and paying a dear price. While I’d like to think the same catastrophe wouldn’t occur today, I can’t be too sure with the current regime. This show resets your clock to dig back into a long standing theory about where diplomacy and supremacy should intersect.
If you like provocative strokes with your televised entertainment, take some time and get into The Looming Tower. A strong Jeff Daniels and superb writing makes this one of the more compelling shows in a good while.