'The Looming Tower' Is the Best Depiction of the 9/11 Backstory Yet

Hulu's 'The Looming Tower' is the one show about U.S. spies that you need to watch

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Tawfeek Barhom and Nebras Jamali in 'The Looming Tower.'
Tawfeek Barhom and Nebras Jamali in 'The Looming Tower.'Credit: Hulu

I’ve always been (unhealthily?) obsessed by 9/11, so it was horribly apt that my cinema ticket for “Zero Dark Thirty” – Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the manhunt for Osama bin Laden – turned out to be for row nine, seat number 11.

I’ve seen every single documentary worth watching about 9/11 – from the definitive one, “9/11,” by the French brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet, in which a production about a rookie New York firefighter is suddenly transformed into an eyewitness account from within the crumbling Twin Towers; to “Out of the Clear Blue Sky,” about the fortunes of the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost 658 employees in the attack; and “16 Acres,” about subsequent attempts to rebuild at Ground Zero. (I won’t even list all the TV documentaries I’ve watched; suffice it to say that “9/11: The Falling Man” is particularly heartbreaking.)

I’ve also read every book on the subject, including Lawrence Wright’s exhaustive “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11.” And I was genuinely awestruck when I interviewed Philippe Petit, the only person on the planet to know what it’s like to walk between the two towers, following his high-wire stunt in 1974 (chronicled in another brilliant documentary, “Man on Wire”).

There have been various cinematic attempts to dramatize events related to 9/11, but for me only three are above contempt: “Zero Dark Thirty”; Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” (2006), his harrowing yet honorable recreation of events on board the eponymous flight that came down in Pennsylvania; and the late Antonia Bird’s “The Hamburg Cell” (2004), about some of the Islamists who eventually carried out the terror attacks.

Everything else I’ve seen – from Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” (2006) to the Charlie Sheen 9/11 drama called, literally, “9/11” (let’s be clear, “Charlie Sheen 9/11 drama” is one of those phrases that should never be uttered) – has been fairly shameful, trying to wring an uplifting message out of the vastness of the tragedy.

There was one interesting TV failure, though: the 2006 ABC miniseries “The Path to 9/11,” which was the first dramatization to shine a light on the failures of the U.S. intelligence agencies in the years leading up to the attack. That show ultimately failed because it tried to shoehorn 2004’s “9/11 Commission Report” into six hours and felt like it was cutting more corners than a rookie driver in the Alps in a doomed bid to deliver “mainstream entertainment” (at least Michael Bay had the decency to wait 60 years before doing that to Pearl Harbor).

Compelling and relevant

My expectations were much higher for Hulu’s new 10-part drama “The Looming Tower” because of Wright’s source material – and three episodes in, it is without doubt the most mature and detailed telling yet of events leading up to the atrocity. Not perfect, for sure, but it is compelling and, disturbingly, just as relevant today.

Even though the season unfolds over 500 minutes, it still only covers a fraction of Wright’s book. For example, the TV show starts at chapter 16 (of Wright’s 20 chapters), paring the cast of characters down to a manageable number – the book lists 86 “principal characters,” and even Robert Altman would struggle to successfully work that many into a drama.

The three key creatives are Wright (who also penned “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David”); writer Dan Futterman (who wrote “Foxcatcher,” and also played American-Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl, kidnapped by Islamists in “A Mighty Heart”); and director Alex Gibney (the Scientology documentary “Going Clear,” among many others). They smartly turn the story into a Shakespearean tragedy in which two men from rival agencies prove to be their own worst enemies while trying to track down one of America’s biggest foes.

'The Looming Tower.'Credit: Hulu

Ego-driven turf war

The first three episodes cover the U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa in the summer of 1998, proceeding at a leisurely pace that suggests we might reach September 2001 sometime in season four. That’s not a criticism, though: “Looming Tower” plays like a cross between a cerebral spy thriller and a police procedural – John le Carré meets Michael Connelly – with its power derived from our awareness of knowing exactly what lies ahead – including the USS Cole bombing in Yemen and, of course, September 11. As Wright himself put it on a Variety podcast, “It’s a little like watching people go down the Niagara River. You know what is downstream, but the people on the boat may not.”

You could argue that the TV drama offers a more sympathetic portrait of John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels), the FBI agent heading its New York-based I-49 unit, which investigates Islamic terrorism. He’s a complex man whose actual love life was even more complicated than depicted – in a brilliant reveal – here. (Even though O’Neill’s story is well documented, I won’t spoil it for those who don’t know his stranger-than-fiction fate.)

While we see plenty of O’Neill’s domestic affairs in the first three episodes, we only ever see his CIA counterpart, Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard) in an office environment. Schmidt, a composite character, heads that agency’s Islamic terrorism desk, called Alec Station, which was charged with taking down Osama bin Laden and his associates. This guy is so tightly wound, so obsessed, that he’s the type of character his agency would normally be hunting.

Although there wasn’t an actual “Martin Schmidt,” the character seems largely based on Michael Scheuer, the heavily bearded head of Alec Station in the 1990s. Scheuer was later dismissed from the CIA for slamming the United States’ close ties with Israel in his score-settling 2004 book “Imperial Hubris” (which, in a bizarre twist, actually won praise from bin Laden).

The show charts how these two flawed men, both desperate to protect their country, allowed small-mindedness to prevent them from seeing the bigger picture – accusations that were corroborated by the 9/11 Joint Inquiry of the U.S. Congress, which occasionally acts as a framing device here. You’re never able to forget that this ego-driven turf war will eventually lead to the War on Terror.

The program also doesn’t shy away from showing the U.S.’s rule-bending approach to human rights – one of the CIA’s coterie of female analysts, Diane Priest (Wrenn Schmidt), flippantly discusses the rendition of a suspected terrorist by noting, “Send them to Cairo in the morning, get your answers by the afternoon.” What “The Looming Tower” doesn’t do (yet, anyway) is humanize the Islamic terrorists (although anyone who saw last year’s British show “The State,” about four ISIS recruits, will know what a particularly tough challenge that is). The only Muslim character we spend any time with is Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim), a Lebanese-American agent whose language skills – as one of only eight Arabic speakers among the agency’s 10,000-plus officers, we are told – soon becomes invaluable to O’Neill.

The actual Soufan is a producer on the show, but his character has been underserved by the script thus far, his finest hour coming at a Laundromat in Tirana.

The star of the show thus far is undoubtedly Bill Camp (“The Night Of”), whose world-weary FBI agent Robert Chesney looks like he hasn’t smiled since Jimmy Carter was in office. That hangdog demeanor masks dogged investigative skills, though, brilliantly showcased in episode three. Incidentally, Camp’s real-life wife, Elizabeth Marvel, is currently playing the ruthless President Keane in “Homeland.” If you only have time for one show about American espionage, please make sure it’s “The Looming Tower.”