The Looming Tower is a frustratingly not-quite-there account of the run-up to the 9/11 attacks, tracking CIA and FBI agents working at cross-purposes and Al Qaeda strategists and soldiers plotting violence against the United States. Based on Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book, and adapted for Hulu by Wright, Alex Gibney, and Dan Futterman, it’s a time-warped vision of an earlier, more blinkered reality, when the federal police and overseas intelligence services got too hung up on protecting their own administrative turf and failed to defend American embassies and the mainland. Even though the 9/11 Commission’s 2004 hearings are employed as a framing device here, usually in a misguided way that kills any momentum the production can generate, The Looming Tower glosses over the behind-the-scenes ideological disagreements that the hearings dredged up — exchanges that might’ve explained the justifications behind the attacks, as well as the U.S. government’s inability to protect against them.
Instead, we get a procedural about hard-charging, egotistical men (and they are mostly men, unavoidably) at loggerheads over the best course of action. The two central antagonists are Jeff Daniels’s John O’Neill, chief of the New York FBI’s counterterrorism center known as “I-49,” and Peter Sarsgaard’s Martin Schmidt, chief of the CIA counterterrorism center called Alec Station, which was devoted to investigating Osama bin Laden. Over time, the Lebanese-American FBI agent Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim of the crime thriller A Prophet) moves more to the center of the story, along with counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke (Michael Stuhlbarg, miscast but making the best of it). But O’Neill and Schmidt’s animosity predominates, and it becomes clear that we’re probably headed toward a conclusion along the lines of, “If these two men and their respective branches of government could only have figured out how to work together, the Towers would still be standing.” (I’m prognosticating because Hulu only made the first three episodes, directed by Gibney and John Dahl, available for review.)
The end product plays a bit like Law & Order: Bin Laden Unit. Once you settle into that specific groove, The Looming Tower is an engaging enough series, with a few “wow” moments — in particular a long scene in episode three that finds FBI agent Robert Chesney (Bill Camp) interrogating Mohamed al-Owhali (Youssef Berouain), one of the suspects in Al Qaeda’s 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. In contrast to much of the rest of the series, which is heavy on scenes of men in rooms arguing about evidence and jurisdiction, and occasional scenes of tactical units storming into houses and stuff blowing up, this one is as stripped-down as drama gets: just two men talking at each other across a table while one of them nervously smokes. It’s mesmerizing, thanks to the interplay between Camp, a national treasure, and Berouain, who has young Al Pacino’s mix of furtiveness and defiance. You get a sense of both men as complicated human beings shaped by their respective cultures.
That’s more than you tend to get from the rest of the production, which often comes across as the “your badge, your gun, my desk, right now!” scenes in every cop thriller ever, but set against a backdrop of international intrigue, with halfhearted detours into the men’s private lives. (O’Neill is married with kids but has a mistress, Soufan’s girlfriend is frustrated that he can never give her details about his work, and so on.) It’s probably too much to expect an American-financed production to put itself into the minds of the enemy, to make the drama richer and confound our sympathies, but it’s still a pity that The Looming Tower is mostly unable or unwilling to try doing this, aside from occasional, sensationally effective moments, such as an NSA-ordered drone strike on an Afghanistan training camp that kills almost everyone in the place, including young children who were shown to be guilty of nothing but being related to extremists.
Such a refocusing might also have deepened the character of Schmidt, who proves to be a major liability. O’Neill is presented as a hot-tempered, often foulmouthed person, but essentially a decent guy and a team player. But Schmidt comes across as the biggest asshole in the entire history of the national security state, a petty little man running a cultlike operation with very little oversight while surrounded by attractive young women who seem to worship him. The Looming Tower treats him as a hypereducated turf warrior who’s so convinced that he’s a genius and everybody else is a moron that he’d rather hoard intelligence than give it to somebody who might derive what he’d consider to be an incorrect conclusion from studying it. Sarsgaard isn’t to blame for the flattening out of Schmidt; as an actor, he’s got a rare gift for humanizing men with an arrogant or too-self-regarding edge. This seems more like a writing problem, seemingly rooted in that avoidance of deep ideological differences. Schmidt is the screen name of a character based on Michael Scheuer, a former CIA intelligence officer turned policy critic who is apparently every bit as infuriating and arrogant as the mini-series depicts, and politically incendiary to boot. (Sample his blog if you’re in the mood to read posts like “Be a hard-ass, President Trump, and slay the republic’s domestic enemies now” and references to “the Democrats’ highly lethal and well-planned terrorist operation in Las Vegas.”)
The real Scheuer comes from a very particular point of view which holds that Al Qaeda were not primarily maniacs or religious extremists but a military force — insurgents, not terrorists, according to his public statements — driven by a distinct ideology. He blames Bill Clinton more than George W. Bush for allowing bin Laden to escape being kidnapped or assassinated for nearly two decades, but he also thinks the Iraq War was a huge mistake, despises Dick Cheney for demonizing anyone who opposed the war, and once wrote, “The thought of what history will say about [former Defense secretary] Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure at the Department of Defense ought to make his relatives shudder down to their latest generation.” As unpleasant as such a man might be to work with, his avatar in The Looming Tower could have been a magnificently thorny anti-hero for this particular story, because he challenges everyone’s preconceptions and demands that they treat every argument about ideology or policy as a form of combat. The very idea that an operation as sensitive as Alec Station was entrusted to a man like this is horrifying or electrifying, depending on if you’re coming from a left-leaning political point of view or that of a viewer who wants a TV series about real life to be as complex, contradictory, even maddening as can be.