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The Looming Tower Turns a Pulitzer-Winning Account of How 9/11 Happened Into a Half-Season CSI

Jeff Daniels as FBI agent John O’Neill in a still image from The Looming Tower.
Jeff Daniels stars as FBI agent John O’Neill in The Looming Tower.
JoJo Whilden/Hulu

The FBI is having a good cultural moment. Coming shortly after the return of beloved heroes Mulder, Scully, and Dale Cooper to the small screen, millions of Americans are counting on real-life former FBI director Robert Mueller and his intrepid team of investigators to deliver them from Donald Trump. Now, a new miniseries suggests that 9/11 and the decades of strife and horror that followed could all have been avoided—if only we’d listened to the G-men.

The Looming Tower, which premiers on Hulu on Wednesday, is billed as an adaptation of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize–winning nonfiction book by Lawrence Wright, who is also one of the series’ executive producers. But that’s a bit misleading. Wright’s book is a magisterial history of the events leading up to the World Trade Center attack, beginning with Sayyid Qutb’s development of what would become jihadi ideology in the 1940s and tracing the origins of al-Qaida through decades of history in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan. The series, created by Wright, documentarian Alex Gibney, and Capote screenwriter Dan Futterman, is focused exclusively on the U.S. efforts to track Osama Bin Laden’s terror network in the three years leading up to 9/11, which aren’t introduced until about two-thirds of the way through the book. It’s an understandable choice—the investigation is a more straightforward story to tell than the origins of al-Qaida and an easier one for American filmmakers to pull off—but the effect is to turn the story into a police procedural where everyone knows the bad guys are going to get away with it and the personal struggles of the main characters feel especially low stakes given the tragedy we know is inevitable.

The series also spends an inordinate amount of time focused on the bureaucratic turf war between the CIA and FBI over the Bin Laden investigation. While well-documented, the CIA’s failure to adequately share information with other agencies during this period doesn’t seem like either the most important or most dramatically interesting pre-9/11 story one could put on screen.

The hero of the story, which begins just before the bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, is John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels, a little miscast as a Jersey Irish tough guy), the hard-charging, bon vivant leader of the FBI’s investigation into al-Qaida. O’Neill is a genuinely fascinating figure—this is the second miniseries to tell his story—as one of the few people in the U.S. government who recognized the threat posed by al-Qaida. Adding to the tragedy of his story (this is a spoiler, I suppose, though one available on Wikipedia), he became one of the group’s victims, having taken a post-FBI job running security at the World Trade Center just days before the attacks. He was also an intriguingly flawed figure, who undermined his own career with sloppy professional mistakes, and a conflicted Catholic with an incredibly messy personal life: He had ongoing relationships with at least two women who were unaware of each other and that he was still married to a third. (The manner in which that last fact is revealed in the first episode of The Looming Tower is an egregious rip-off of the pilot of Mad Men.)

O’Neill is teamed up with a rookie agent, Ali Soufan (French actor Tahar Rahim, from 2009’s A Prophet), one of only eight Arabic speakers in the entire bureau at the time. Pitted against them is the CIA’s own al-Qaida unit, led by analyst Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard) and his creepily obsequious protégée Diane Marsh (Wrenn Schmidt). Alec Baldwin has a brief cameo as CIA Director George Tenet. White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke (played with grandfatherly benevolence by a bewigged Michael Stuhlbarg) has the unenviable task of mediating between the two sides.

Much of the three episodes available for review—there are 10 altogether—is devoted to the lead-up to and investigation of the embassy bombings, as well as the Clinton administration’s ill-fated decision to launch airstrikes in Sudan and Afghanistan in response. Both sides see Bin Laden as a major threat at a time when most of Washington is distracted by the Monica Lewinsky affair but differ on what to do about it.

The creators stack the deck in favor of the FBI unit, a mix of lovable salt-of-the-Jersey-earth types and improbably beautiful field agents. O’Neill and Soufan are seemingly proven right in every conflict with rival agencies and their superiors. Schmidt (seemingly based on controversial CIA veteran Michael Scheuer, though it’s understandable that the character’s name was changed) is a creepy, unsympathetic basement dweller. The FBI agents refer to the bearded Schmidt and his gaggle of devoted female subordinates as the “Manson family.”

The creators of the show seem to intend it as not only a critique of U.S. government actions in the years leading up to 9/11 but what followed as well. Schmidt is prone to Cheney-esque pronouncements about the need for extreme measures to fight terrorism. He enthusiastically turns suspects over to Egyptian custody, knowing they’ll be tortured, and is indifferent to the potential civilian casualties that will result from the airstrikes he recommends against al-Qaida targets. This is well-trod territory for Wright, as well as his co-producer Gibney, the prolific documentary filmmaker who made the Oscar-winning film Taxi to the Dark Side about U.S. torture in Afghanistan.

O’Neill and his team suggest that the best way to treat al-Qaida is as criminals and the best way to combat them is by catching them and putting them on trial. (Since leaving the FBI, the real Soufan has become a prominent opponent of the use of torture against terrorism suspects.) When someone tells O’Neill at one point that the country is at war with the terrorists, he replies, “Only if we choose to be.” He is put forth as an alternative model of how 9/11 could have been prevented, and how we, as a nation, could have responded to it. It could be thought of as a response to Zero Dark Thirty, with its CIA focus and ambivalent portrayal of torture.

The argument would be more convincing if Schmidt weren’t such a flimsy straw man, arguing that he doesn’t care if non-Americans are accidentally killed moments before we literally watch a young Afghan boy become radicalized as his friend is torn apart by a U.S. bomb. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is clunky and the subplots about Soufan and O’Neill’s romantic lives feel superfluous. A fictionalized budding romance between a grizzled FBI agent and an employee of the doomed Nairobi embassy is almost ghoulish.

The drama does pick up a bit in the third episode, when the FBI agents begin to fan out across the globe to Kenya, Albania, and Britain to hunt down the terrorists. Hopefully, as the show goes on, the portrayal of O’Neill and the FBI gets a little more nuanced and the CIA–FBI dialectic at the show’s heart a little less cartoonish.

Given its source material, one of the most striking things about The Looming Tower is its seeming indifference to al-Qaida itself. For all the lectures we get from O’Neill and Soufan about the importance of understanding the culture and grievances motivating their enemies, we don’t actually learn much about them, other than a few snippets about how they want U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia. A handful of scenes set in al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan don’t do much to advance the plot or expand the show’s ideas.

While a number of senior al-Qaida officials, including current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Anas al-Libi, are portrayed by actors, Bin Laden himself appears only in archival footage, skillfully if awkwardly edited into re-enacted scenes. Almost seven years after his death and 17 since 9/11, filmmakers have gotten more comfortable tackling the events around Bin Laden, but the man himself remains off limits.