Amongst a handful of other distinctions, Hulu’s The Looming Tower sees executive producer Alex Gibney teaming up with writer Lawrence Wright, the man who penned the source material for Gibney’s excellent HBO documentary, Going Clear, about the cult of Scientology. That alone would serve as a hook for fans of either of these men or Going Clear itself, and they are joined by Capote writer Dan Futterman as well as gifted veteran TV directors Michael Slovis (Preacher, Breaking Bad) and Craig Zisk (Veep, Parks & Recreation, This is Us) to boot. The pedigree of the creative team speaks to the perceived importance of the subject matter – the early days of the FBI and CIA tracking Osama bin Laden during the Clinton presidency – and what comes through in the writing is an extensively researched concept of how bureaucracy, inter-departmental strife and jealousy, and power plays at the highest levels of government led to bin Laden surviving to carry out the September 11th terror attacks. The problem is that The Looming Tower doesn’t communicate much more than that research.
The series centers in on the war between the FBI’s John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels), the famed counter-terrorism expert who became a Special Agent in Charge following his work on the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and his counterpart at the CIA, Martin Schmidt, played by Peter Sarsgaard. While O’Neill puts his faith in Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim), the young Lebanese-American agent who would go onto nearly prevent the September 11th attacks, Schmidt and his chief underling, Diane (Wrenn Schmidt), dig into their vast pools of information in meeting rooms and offices with the blinds drawn. Where O’Neill comes off as rough around the edges and uncompromising, as well as a brazen bigamist, Schmidt and his team exude pomposity and a near-venomous hatred for Al-Qaeda, one that they get to ramp up when President Clinton’s, er, interactions with Monica Lewinsky come to light and the White House is in need of a good distraction.
The contrasts are not hard to pick out here. Gibney and his creative team paint the FBI as openly duplicitous and aggressive but also righteous and smart about finding crucial information, while their CIA is in complete control to the point where they seem uninterested in anything but that control. There is plenty of technical talk and dryly presented exposition about where Al-Qaeda and bin Laden came from but it mostly boils down to this dynamic: the problematic but humane FBI vs. the cold and calculating CIA. Thanks to Daniels, Rahim, Schmidt, and Sarsgaard, there’s a sense that these characters are more complex than their symbolic heft but the writing returns to this simplistic tete-a-tete consistently throughout the series’ first three episodes, rather than digging further into the intimate moments that truly define these people involved in the hunt for Al-Qaeda.
The most pointed difference between the two sides is that the FBI agents seem to at least strive for personal lives. O’Neill is seen with his family as well as his long-term girlfriend and a mistress to boot, though these scenes merely attest to the fact that O’Neill got horny and was preparing to go through a divorce at the time. There’s similarly not much revealed about Ali through his early dates and late-night phone calls with a young woman who presumably will become his wife, other than he can be egotistical and is heterosexual. The performers offer flashes of persona in quiet moments, gesticulations, and a handful of exchanges but for the most part, the characters come off as little more than figures meant to convey information from Wright’s book. The series seems to be constantly imparting a tonnage of data and explaining that information up to a point, while any sense of behavioral tells or a tempestuous inner life evaporate before the second joke about the stained dress comes up.
There is an inkling of hope found in the storyline of Bill Camp‘s Robert Chesney, one of O’Neill’s men on the ground in the Middle East. Chesney is in the thick of the conflict and the scenes centered on him have a similar timber as Paul Greengrass‘ exhilarating procedurals at their very best and hokey political dramas like The Kingdom or Blood Diamond at its worst. And yet even his work seems to boil down to information, and the directors don’t do much to suggest that much else is worth focusing on. The imagery is plain and meant for efficiency over anything like expression, and the pacing, though rarely tedious, is tethered to the sprawling plot.
Even the great Michael Stuhlbarg‘s performance as counter-terrorism honcho Richard Clarke feels empty, seemingly primarily motivated to dole out information about international affairs. It renders the entire show into a middling act of didacticism, an attempt to pass off facts as insight and characters as little more than the sum of their intellect. Rather than tracing the complicated personalities and ludicrous dick-measuring contests that led to Al-Qaeda carrying out the biggest terrorist attack in American history, Gibney, Wright, and the rest of the creative team boil down the personal drama to little more than a series of arguments and discussions in offices at varying volumes.
The Looming Tower premieres on February 28th on Hulu.