The Looming Tower is a Hulu miniseries dramatizing the events that led up to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001, yet the show’s opening shot is a glimpse into how fundamentally the attack altered the American surveillance state. The first shot is an aerial view looking straight down at a man on a motorcycle who is racing to start a plot in motion. Though it’s possibly computer-generated, the shot has the appearance of drone footage, with its creeping and unnaturally smooth motion. It’s a cinematic technique that simply didn’t exist when these events were taking place, but the shot also points toward the distant and mechanized warfare that would make up much of the War on Terror. It’s a chilling moment that grabs you and seems to suggest a series that will more fully grapple with the events preceding and following 9/11 than it ultimately does. Still, The Looming Tower’s succeeds ably at its more modest goals.
The show is based on Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the birth of Al-Qaeda and the planning of the 9/11 attacks. Even at ten episodes, the show had to narrow its focus from the book’s, which explored Osama bin Laden’s development and radicalization as well as the failed search for him in the years prior to the terrorist attack. The show has set its sites mostly on the two agencies tracking bin Laden, the CIA and the FBI. The hunt for bin Laden is led at the CIA by Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard), a composite character. As of 1998, Schmidt and his team have tracked Al-Qaeda’s various tendrils as far as Eastern Europe, but none of their intelligence and data are to be shared with the FBI, at Schmidt’s behest. The FBI agents in charge of trying to bring bin Laden to justice have to resort to impromptu visits to Schmidt’s team in hope of glimpsing something as tiny as a pin in a map.
As the series unfolds, it more fully explains the animosity between the two organizations. Schmidt’s views his CIA group as in entwined with the military — they gather as much evidence as possible to allow for sweeping bombing campaigns to wipe out Al-Qaeda. But the military isn’t interested in that kind of collateral damage.
At the same time, Schmidt refuses to share information with the FBI for fear that it will try to arrest suspects piecemeal, giving bin Laden and the other leaders plenty of warning to evade capture. The FBI group assigned to bin Laden is led by John O’Neill (a particularly jowly Jeff Daniels). The series’ version of O’Neill is hard drinking, foul-mouthed womanizer. The real O’Neill served in the FBI until he was forced out in 2001. He went on to become head of security at the World Trade Center, where he died on the morning of September 11. The show hasn’t foreshadowed his death (yet), but Daniels plays him with a constant aura of sadness, as if he doesn’t see anything positive on his horizon. O’Neill’s crisp suits and slicked back hair are the antithesis of Schmidt, who sports an Allen Ginsberg-beard and wears ratty-looking sweaters. He seems as if he might have once been a hippie, before falling victim to all consuming militaristic paranoia.
Although The Looming Tower begins in the twilight of the Clinton administration, when most people were more concerned with dress stains than embassy bombings, it belongs to our current moment. Compare its portrayal of the CIA to Zero Dark Thirty (2012); that film built its story of the hunt for bin Laden and his eventual death through information provided by the CIA — information that later turned out to be inaccurate and overly charitable to the agency. The CIA refused to consult on The Looming Tower, and the show is much more comfortable focusing on the agency’s failures and missteps. So far, the FBI is shown in a much more positive light. It’s in step with current attitudes, where a majority of Americans trust Robert Mueller to conduct a fair investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Despite its many immoral and unethical actions before and after the events of The Looming Tower, the bureau is given a heroic sheen in line with the times.
Sarsgaard gives a cartoonish — sometimes even distracting — performance, but the show’s heart is with Daniels and some of the supporting characters at the FBI. The great French actor Tahar Rahim plays Arab American agent Ali Soufan, who helped make public some of the squabbles between the FBI and CIA. Soufan no longer considers himself a practicing Muslim, and drinks enough whiskey to hold his own with the other agents, yet the rituals still comfort him. He’s young, and still trying to figure out how to do his job without sacrificing a connection to those around him. Bill Camp, whose face has been in almost any film or TV show you can think of in the last few years, has another moving storyline. He’s dispatched to Kenya shortly before the bombing of its American embassy. In the wake of the blast, he returns to the site day after day, hoping that the woman he was too afraid to have a drink with will be found alive in the rubble.
These more nuanced sections are where The Looming Tower is most ambitious, but most of the time the series is content to slide into the familiar trappings of a policier film. There’s a sense of pieces falling into place, and the show takes on a chugging kind of inevitability toward the tragedy we know will eventually happen. No matter how well the FBI or CIA investigate and follow all available paths, we know that they will ultimately fail. A better series might have taken a more meditative approach and pondered the sense of fatalism. The Looming Tower doesn’t let up long enough to do so.
Still, though its goals aren’t as ambitious as we might wish, the show is nothing if not engrossing. The Looming Tower doesn’t deliver on its full potential, but what it does deliver is still enough to leave you with white knuckles.
Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema’s Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He’s a graduate of USC’s master’s program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s “King Lear.” Totally worth it.
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