Until The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu hadn’t yet produced a truly breakthrough original TV drama. While the new 9/11 espionage thriller miniseries The Looming Tower likely won’t have anywhere near the pop-culture impact of its Emmy-winning counterpart, it does touch on themes and topics that are just as timely, ranging from the consequences of America’s power games in other parts of the world to the costs of inter-agency squabbling within the U.S. government.
Opening in 1998, The Looming Tower unfolds on both sides of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that are its focus. Most of the action takes place in the years leading up to that dark day, but the narrative also occasionally leaps to 2004 for a frame story involving the Congressional investigation into the attacks, and how they slipped past the collective might of the American intelligence apparatus. Introducing the disparate noteworthy players on both sides of the War on Terror, The Looming Tower very quickly paints a depressing portrait of pissing matches between the FBI and CIA that essentially comes down to personal grudges as much as differences in philosophy about how best to combat global terrorism.
Leading the FBI side of the equation is John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels), the head of the New York FBI’s I-49 counterterrorism unit. He’s convinced that Al Qaeda is a bigger threat to the United States than most were willing to concede in the late ‘90s, and he’s determined to take down Osama bin Laden and his organization by dismantling it through old-fashioned police work, arrests, and flipping every low-level operative they can get their hands on. He constantly butts heads with Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard), the head of the CIA’s Al Qaeda unit, who has his own preferred tactics for countering the threat, ones which treat the enemy more as “enemy combatants” and don’t always include sharing crucial intelligence with their fellow public servants at the FBI.
Also in the mix is Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim), a young, ambitious Muslim-American FBI agent who soon becomes O’Neill’s protege. Soufan has the skills and background to be an incredibly useful asset against Al Qaeda and also has the personal motivation having watched his culture corrupted into something that both sickens him and endangers his adopted homeland.
Beneath the “based on real events” hook, The Looming Tower unfolds like many an espionage thriller before it. Certainly more grounded than Homeland or 24, it milks real-world implications for all they’re worth but never relies too heavily on unearned gravitas. Anchored by strong performances by Daniels, Sarsgaard, and Rahim, The Looming Tower turns an unflinching eye on its subject matter, making neither pristine heroes of its American protagonists nor two-dimensional villains of its antagonists. The world of The Looming Tower is messy and complicated, full of missed opportunities, foolish mistakes, and tragedies that could almost certainly have been avoided if there were fewer egos in play.
Even though The Looming Tower doesn’t sensationalize or exploit the real-world tragedy of 9/11, it’s impossible to avoid its shadow, and that definitely gives the show a weight it might not have otherwise. Most of us have grown up watching this sort of story on both the small and large screen, but every moment of The Looming Tower unfolds beneath that sense of terrible foreknowledge, turning every viewer into a Cassandra and making every missed opportunity to avert Al Qaeda’s plans that much more brutal.