Warning signs: ‘The Looming Tower’ is a haunting look at the road to 9/11

By JIM SABATASO
Correspondent

Hindsight is a cruel gift. Looking backward, we instantly sees patterns and clues we missed or ignored, the subtle and obvious warning signs lost in the forest of a past present’s distractions. We see the impending doom on the horizon — the doom we could have seen then if only we’d paid attention. For those who could see the doom in that moment, hindsight cuts even deeper. They were the lone voice crying out, ignored and dismissed as paranoid or delusional. For them, hindsight is bitter vindication.

Seventeen years after the 9/11 attacks, we know full well the extent to which the U.S. intelligence community failed. We know inter-organizational posturing and bureaucratic dysfunction cost lives. All this information has been known since the 9/11 Commission’s report and subsequent FOIA requests revealed the massive scale of the failure. Whether by ignorance, incompetence or hubris, there is blood on their hands.

That dark road to 9/11 has now been dramatized in a new Hulu miniseries “The Looming Tower.” Based on the 2006 nonfiction book of the same name by journalist Lawrence Wright, the story adds narrative meat to the bare-bones facts we already know by following a cast of characters — both real and composite — inside the CIA and FBI who saw the warning signs and did their best, in their own ways, to capture Osama bin Laden and bring down Al-Qaeda.

Dan Futterman and Alex Gibney (“Going Clear”) worked with Wright to bring the book to television, with Futterman acting as showrunner and Gibney directing several episodes. The trio brings a journalistic sensibility to the series. All three have worked in documentary, journalism and nonfiction, and bring that experience to bear here in a show that is light action but nonetheless gripping in its narrative-driven presentation of the facts.

Actual footage from the era, including interviews with bin Laden, scenes from the African embassy bombings and news clips of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, helps to set the series in its historical moment while adding a degree of verisimilitude. It’s a reminder that this story actually happened and the people we are following are (mostly) based on real people.

Those looking for a tense political thriller in the vein of “Homeland” or “24,” will be left wanting. Attempts to sensationalize this period of history always feel distasteful, and Futterman and co. exercise great restraint in depicting real-life events and characters. That said, their attempt to add a human element to the story by giving glimpses into the personal lives of its primary cast, while not needlessly dramatized, is the series’ weakest area.

The story opens in 1998 as members of the FBI and CIA’s joint bin Laden task force butt heads amid twin U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. While everyone on the team sees the attacks as a wakeup call and harbinger of bigger threats to come, the feuding agencies disagree on how to proceed.

The CIA’s refusal to share intelligence becomes the core conflict of the first three episodes. It’s framed as a philosophical disagreement — the CIA fears the Bureau’s arrest-the-bad-guys strategy is less effective than its hawkish plan to launch a concerted military effort — but it’s obvious that a clash of egos is the real issue.

The conflict is personified in FBI counterterrorism agent John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels) and CIA analyst Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard). The former is a pugnacious New York investigator who sees the writing on the wall; the latter is a smarmy bureaucrat who fancies himself the smartest person in the room.

Daniels and Sarsgaard are both strong actors and do a fine job of making these characters as detestable as they are meant to be. For all of O’Neill’s righteous foresight — he’s made out to be the hero here — he’s still a sleazy serial adulterer who carries himself with the kind of alpha dog entitlement that has curdled over time. The role is reminiscent of Daniels’ Will McAvoy character from “The Newsroom,” another alpha bro best left in the past.

Schmidt, meanwhile, is a sanctimonious twerp who practices a callous, cynical patriotism. He muses that the Lewinsky scandal will provide an ideal opportunity to launch attacks in the Middle East, and flatly, almost proudly, admits his utter lack of concern for human lives that aren’t American.

Around the edges we get slightly more interesting characters. Bill Camp’s depiction of Robert Chesney, a veteran FBI agent who proves himself to be both a sharp interrogator and compassionate human, is a great turn. In a time when the intelligence community was woefully ignorant about Arabic culture and customs, Chesney demonstrates keen awareness and sensitivity.

Tahar Rahim gets less to do as Ali Soufan, a Muslim FBI agent, who in real life is regarded as someone who could have helped prevent 9/11 if only people had heeded his warnings. Soufan is O’Neill’s golden boy, and he doesn’t let him down. He’s a crackerjack agent whose ability to navigate Islam and speak Arabic is indispensable.

Unfortunately, the character is too often forced prove that he’s on our team in overwrought scenes where he explicitly and definitively states the obvious: Al-Qaeda does not represent Islam. The declarations are likely included to remind less open-minded viewers that most Muslims are not terrorists, but they feel forced and awkward.

After three episodes, “The Looming Tower” is a slow burn, to be sure. While I never found myself bored watching, I can’t say this is an exceptionally compelling piece of television. I don’t necessarily mean that as a knock on the show; it just plays more like a heavily dramatized documentary than a scripted drama. Given that the book doesn’t actually include the 9/11 attacks, it’s unclear if the series will take us all the way to that fateful day. I’m not sure it needs to. We already know the end of the story; there are no spoilers. The story we do get, however, is no less haunting, as it examines the failures and missteps that precipitated a tragedy that would adversely shape American politics and policy for the next century.

CHECK IT OUT

New episodes of “The Looming Tower” are released every Wednesday on Hulu.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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