'The Looming Tower' tells us 9/11 didn't have to happen

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Jeff Daniels and Tahar Rahim in The Looming Tower. (Photo: JoJo Whilden/Hulu)

In The Looming Tower, we see the rise of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida and witness the efforts of the CIA and the FBI to prevent terrorist attacks. This story peaks with the attack they, and other intelligence sources, didn’t prevent, on Sept. 11, 2001. It’s a terrible story made dramatic in this 10-part Hulu adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name. This Looming Tower lays out how much America knew, and how much it didn’t, in the lead-up to this violent tragedy.

Producers Alex Gibney and Dan Futterman stage this story as a struggle between John O’Neill, head of the FBI’s counterterrorism unit, and Martin Schmidt, head of the CIA’s al-Qaida unit. O’Neill, played by Jeff Daniels, is depicted as a passionate, flamboyant hothead; Schmidt, played by Peter Sarsgaard, is all fussy reserve. Their essential natures are antithetical to each other — it’s no wonder one doesn’t trust the other; they do everything they can to undercut each other. Yet the show is careful to emphasize that this was no mere battle of egos; each was doing his best to save the United States from what he thought was a highly likely attack.

Three episodes of The Looming Tower were made available for review, and it’s a big-canvas production with a large cast. Whenever we’re not witnessing FBI and CIA squabbles, we are most frequently alongside Ali Soufan, a Muslim Lebanese-American FBI agent who senses quicker than most Americans the scope and possibility of terrorism in our homeland. As played by Tahar Rahim, Soufan is a quietly intense young man who eventually becomes O’Neill’s most trusted aide. Bill Camp, fresh from HBO’s The Night Of, is excellent as usual, this time as Robert Chesney, a veteran New York FBI counterterrorism expert. And one key scene in the third episode is stolen by Alec Baldwin as a grumpy, decisive George Tenet, director of the CIA. The overall message of The Looming Tower seems to be that America could have prevented the 9/11 attack, but a confluence of warring ideas, contradictory interpretations of intelligence, and a reluctance to make hard decisions made the tragedy almost inevitable.

It’s fascinating to watch the ways these men — and most of the principals were men — gathered information, formed theories and conclusions, and butted heads with one another over plans of action. It’s dismaying to absorb one of this miniseries’ most timely subtexts: that during the most intense time leading up to the 9/11 attack, the American media was distracted by President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal. Clearly, one of the lessons we didn’t learn from this period of history is that our news media constantly emphasizes the wrong, most superficial things, and leaves Americans gravely ill-informed about what’s going on outside of our country.

The Looming Tower is streaming now on Hulu.

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