It’s a daunting prospect, spending 10 hours taking a deep-dive into the quagmire of bureaucratic dysfunction that hindered the FBI and CIA from stopping the 9/11 attacks. No matter how artfully the story is told — and Hulu’s new limited series The Looming Tower is replete with strong performances — the inevitability of this story’s terrible ending may be hard for some viewers to overcome. (Full disclosure: I’m writing this review from a desk that overlooks the 9/11 Memorial in New York.)
Based on Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, Looming Tower (launching Feb. 28) begins in 1998, as the CIA and FBI are pursuing separate (and apparently very unequal) investigations into Al-Qaeda and its fatwa-issuing leader Osama Bin Laden. FBI counter terrorism chief John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels) — a brash, obstreperous bulldozer of a man who makes entertainingly crass threats like “I’ll shove that thing so far up your ass you’ll be combing sh** out of your pompous f***ing beard” — clashes regularly with his condescending, intel-hoarding CIA counterpart Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard, sporting the aforementioned “pompous f***ing beard”). Neither agency bothers to hide its disdain for the other: O’Neill calls Schmidt’s team “the Manson family,” while a CIA analyst refers to two FBI agents as “the retarded twins.” Into this morass of infighting and dick-swinging comes Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim), a Lebanese-American Muslim who brings a much-needed cultural and linguistic understanding to the FBI. Based on the real-life agent, Ali Soufan serves as the moral center of Looming Tower, bearing the patience, humanity and determination you’d like to imagine all of our law enforcement officials possess.
As Osama Bin Laden’s jihad begins with the dual embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tower attempts to balance the drama of actual history with narrative flourishes. Archival news footage of Bin Laden’s ABC News interview and the carnage in Nairobi mixes uneasily with a side-plot about O’Neill’s rampant womanizing (as reported in Wright’s book, the real O’Neill was carrying on relationships with three women while still married). Any time Tower ventures into the personal lives of the men tracking Al Queda, it feels out of place. Does O’Neill’s complicated past with the Catholic Church really inform the immediate story, which is complicated and nuanced enough on its own? Do we really need a subplot about a budding romance between an FBI agent (The Night Of’s excellent Bill Camp) and a CIA agent who dies in the Nairobi bombing — presumably to drive home the horror of that attack — when the real attack was horrific enough on its face?
There is plenty to admire in Tower, though — most notably a captivating performance by Rahim. It’s a tricky task, playing a real person who is also a hero, not to mention serving as the eye in the focus-pulling storm that is Jeff Daniels and Peter Sarsgaard — but the actor, already a star in his native France, accomplishes both with a quiet magnetism. As difficult as Tower’s subject matter may be for some, it’s also a true pleasure to watch Rahim work. B-