The Looming Tower Review (Spoiler-Free)

Hulu’s new limited series about the events leading up to 9/11 is entertaining at times but feels inessential and familiar.

The FBI could really use a win right now.

FBI Director James Comey was fired in May 2017. Deputy Director Andre McCabe resigned/was pushed out in January for the crime of…not wanting to obstruct justice, I guess? The department tis he subject of a House GOP memo that accuses them of political bias. They’re a favorite punching bag of the President and his conservative media apparatus. Even liberals who find themselves in the unenviable position of defending of FBI can’t quite do it without an obligatory “I’m no fan of the FBI but…”

It’s a dark time for J. Edgar’s boys and into those dark times enters Hulu’s The Looming Tower. The Looming Tower is based on a Pultizer Prize-winning book of the same name by Lawrence Wright. It details the events leading up to 9/11 and how internal CIA and FBI squabbling made the U.S. government unable to prevent the World Trade Center attacks.

On its surface that description doesn’t sound like it would be the manna from heaven that the FBI currently needs. If nothing else, however, the show posits “yeah the FBI dropped the ball on this, but at least they weren’t as bad as those dicks at the CIA.”

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Jeff Daniels stars as real-life former Special Agent in Charge of the FBI John O’Neill. Don’t Google him if you are spoiler-phobic. O’Neill runs the FBI like a Sorkin-esque hero. He’s hard-drinking, hard-living and ends phone calls with his friends by saying “fuck you too,” but damn it, he gets the job done.

Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard) is his counterpart at the CIA. Schmidt is callous, cruel, and entirely unwilling to share information with O’Neill and the FBI. Throughout the first three episodes screened of The Looming Tower, Schmidt and O’Neill engage is various different espionage games throughout the Middle East and West Africa, trying to track down and destroy Al Qaeda, and failing miserably due to their inability to cooperate.

Part of the problem with The Looming Tower is it feels like propaganda. The FBI presented in the first three episodes is imperfect, yet noble. O’Neill has a curious personal life and his temper gets the best of him often. Still, he’s competent and willing to listen to and rely upon his subordinates.

Conversely, Schmidt and many of his cohorts at the CIA are just flagrant, useless assholes. Schmidt claims he doesn’t want to share information with the FBI due to their butcher-like approach to espionage and diplomacy, yet never turns down an opportunity to beg Counter-terrorism Director Richard Clarke (an always welcome Michael Stuhlbarg) to carpet bomb virtually any inch of the Middle East that Osama bin Laden ever so much as took a shit in.

The Looming Tower makes what side it has chosen obvious too early on. Among the first scenes of the show is a flash-forward to 2004 where an FBI employee lays all the blame at the foot of the CIA for 9/11. In a later episode, a CIA employee will all but pick up and accept that blame as dickishly as possible at the same commission.

Granted, maybe The Looming Tower is right! Maybe Martin Schmidt (who appears not to be a real person but rather a composite of individuals at the CIA) was a cartoonish, incompetent villain. I haven’t the political savvy or knowledge base to know. The problem is that even if The Looming Tower is telling the truth, it doesn’t feel like it and that’s a breakdown in storytelling and character building – regardless of what the reality of events may have been.

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This is first and foremost a storytelling venture. Learning, enlightening, and maybe even propagandizing are secondary goals. The Looming Tower’s exaggerated and unbelievable depiction of CIA mustache-twirling deeds is too unbelievable to accomplish its main storytelling goal.

And yes, I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence about the folks behind MK Ultra either.

Another issue with The Looming Tower is the Sorkin-ness of it all. Most characters are uncommonly, screenwriter-ingly clever. Jeff Daniels appears to be playing a close cousin to The Newsroom’s Will McCoy. All of the women, regardless or age or job status are stunningly beautiful and are absolutely sexually ravenous for balding men in their 50s and 60s.

Ironically, however, that hint of Sorkin is one of the show’s strengths too. The cast is mostly excellent and appealing. Daniels’ character may have some tacked on obvious character issues and sound like Will McAvoy but at the end of the day he’s still possesses all the natural charm and appeal of Jeff Daniels.

Bill Camp (who was excellent in The Night Of) is gifted a perfectly sized supporting role as FBI analyst Bob. Camp is captivating and enjoyable every minute he’s onscreen. He’s an actor more than up for any level of dialogue, realistic, fast-paced or otherwise and he easily spackels over many of the show’s issues.

The standout though is undoubtedly is Tahar Rahim (of the Oscar-nominated French film A Prophet) as Ali Soufan. Soufan is a real life FBI agent, who was a prime source for the book and is likely the progenitor of much of its pro-FBI sentiment. As a character he’s the perfect introduction to this world – a young, Beirut-born agent with a fascinating perspective into the world of Islamic terrorism. The show wisely uses him as an entrance point into its world and the story’s de facto lead character.

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Scenes in which Soufan is able to just operate as a Muslim-American Jack Bauer figure overseas are easily the best moments the show has to offer.

Ultimately, The Looming Tower is easy enough to watch. Episodes are well-paced and carry an appropriate balance of back-room governmental meetings and counter-terrorism operations in the field. Too much of it, however, is couched in a “difficult men” Sorkin-esque TV era that we’ve seen more than enough of. And beyond that, it also comes across as the FBI’s last hope to win back the hearts and minds of America.

To that I say “I’m no fan of the FBI but…”


3 out of 5