The Looming Tower Review: Hulu's Intentionally Frustrating 9/11 Drama Falls Just Short Of Greatness

The Looming Tower Hulu Jeff Daniels

Over the last few years, we have seen the true crime genre take off in a significant way, as dramatizations of recent real-life events are hot topics on prestige TV. Now, Hulu has gotten in on the action, with executive producers Lawrence Wright, Dan Futterman, and Alex Gibney adapting Wright's book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 for the streaming platform. As repurposed for TV, The Looming Tower can feel slow and dry at times, but it's also a powerful and often infuriating display of how law enforcement bickering ultimately helped destroy thousands of lives.

Chronologically speaking, the real story of The Looming Tower begins in 1998, in an America far more concerned with the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal than with anything big happening overseas. As Al-Qaeda begins ramping up its efforts for a major attack on American soil, we're introduced to FBI head honcho John O'Neill (Jeff Daniels), who enlists the aid of agent Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim) to assist him in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden (or "UBL"), but not without constant stonewalling and withholding of information by CIA officer Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard). What follows is a three-year quagmire characterized by both preventable attacks with real victims and constant infighting that conveys just how disconnected from each other many of our most prominent law enforcement and intelligence agencies truly are.

One early element worth noting is how frustrating The Looming Tower is depicting the lead-up to September 11, 2001. The rift between the CIA and the FBI permeates every episode, with the bulk of the story focusing on characters arguing over who has jurisdiction and legal rights to any and all specific pieces of intelligence.

In that way, it's impossible to look at that story and not see how The Looming Tower _is wholly relevant to the modern era, despite the fact that its core story is almost 20 years old. The show features numerous scenes of characters discussing the political ramifications of specific courses of action, while consistently cutting back to Al-Qaeda members planning the attacks, and we're always reminded of the tangible consequences that lie just around the corner if no action takes place. _The Looming Tower may depict the pothole-filled road to 9/11, but it also serves as a clear and disturbing parable that in some ways mirrors the same issues continuing to plague the government years later.

When you look at a show like The Looming Tower, one of the first things that jumps out is the cast. The always excellent Jeff Daniels and Peter Sarsgaard are the two heavy-hitters in this ensemble as FBI officer John O'Neill and the CIA's Martin Schmidt, respectively, and much of The Looming Tower's dramatic tension comes from the growing divide generated between these two men and their unyielding organizations. The distinction between these two men couldn't be more apparent: O'Neill is thoroughly flawed, but ultimately well-intentioned in trying to do the "right" thing while also creating a stable life for himself. Meanwhile, Schmidt is ceaseless in his commitment to his work (and his cult-like influence over his CIA underlings), which seems to stem more from his desire for control than any desires to make the right call in the war on terror.

Working beneath O'Neill and Schmidt are two other main characters that we follow through the bulk of the investigation: Tahar Rahim's Ali Soufan and Bill Camp's Robert Chesney. As Soufan, Rahim delivers a calm and measured performance as a young Muslim man trying to navigate the politics of an American law enforcement agency that's actively hunting young Muslim men. Meanwhile, Camp provides arguably the best performance of the entire series, portraying Chesney as a tired and drained man with a variety of hidden law enforcement talents, somewhat in the vein of Better Call Saul's Mike Ehrmantraut.

Despite that handful of notable performances, though, few others in The Looming Tower's cast jump out as clear standouts, which admittedly comes across less as sloppy storytelling, and more a matter of intentional design. The Looming Tower is all about the sheer number of moving parts involved in the lead-up to 9/11, and which is better personified by a constantly in-motion ensemble than something purely character-driven. Even when instantly noteworthy cameos happen, such as those from The Shape of Water's Michael Stuhlberg and Alec Baldwin, we're almost always watching understated performances that don't rely on scenery chewing.

This ensemble-focus lends a sense of realism to how The Looming Tower's narrative unfolds, but it can also be hard to shake the feeling that the show is purposefully dry and impersonal. Series co-creator Alex Gibney has largely become known for his work on documentaries Going Clear and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and the stiff, exposition-oriented emphasis on facts and reports dominates The Looming Tower's tone. It can be a welcome change of pace, certainly, especially when emphasizing the fact that events prefacing 9/11 were not characterized by foot chases and fist fights. However, that approach also means the story lacks a certain amount of kinetic energy and urgency as that infamous date draws near.

What makes The Looming Tower fundamentally work as a series is its profoundly disturbing implications about the divisions and infighting in government and law enforcement that allow tragedies like 9/11 to go unthwarted. The dense and complex story sometimes plays more like a bitter history lesson or an exposition-heavy reenactment than an emotionally-investing TV drama, but that shouldn't take away from the importance of this tale.

The Looming Tower Season 1 is now streaming on Hulu, so make sure to head over to the streaming service and check it out for yourself. You can also hop over to CinemaBlend's midseason premiere guide to get more information on all of the other shows that are going to debut this spring, and you can listen to the most recent episode of The Cord Cutter Podcast to hear our thoughts on the latest and greatest streaming content.

Conner Schwerdtfeger

Originally from Connecticut, Conner grew up in San Diego and graduated from Chapman University in 2014. He now lives in Los Angeles working in and around the entertainment industry and can mostly be found binging horror movies and chugging coffee.