TV Review: ‘The Looming Tower’ Shows the Fight Against Terrorism Before 9/11

As Hulu has continued to be a player in the world of streaming, it has continued to grab prestige projects. Their new mini-series, “The Looming Tower” certainly qualifies as a prestige project. In many ways, the new series will appeal to fans of “Homeland” or “Madame Secretary,” yet it has an all-star crew assembled behind it. Most important of all, the series has something to say about the ways in which the highest levels of government communicate. It’s a relevant topic in today’s splintered world, where the politicization of these government agencies may lead to other atrocities.

Based on the book by Lawrence Wright, “The Looming Tower” examines the inner workings of the CIA and FBI in the years leading up to 9/11. Interestingly, it positions the events in question in juxtaposition with the Monica Lewinsky scandal that rocked Bill Clinton‘s presidency. This makes for an interesting bit of context that further empowers the narrative surrounding miscommunication. When our eye is off the prize, and the country is focused on a minor political scandal, far greater consequences can occur.

The series takes this message and utilizes strong and charismatic actors to play out its narrative. The most bankable star in the show is undeniably Jeff Daniels playing John O’Neill. It’s a tragic arc that Daniel’s embarks down, one that many may find to be unrealistic. Daniels is an incredible actor and brings his charisma and authority to screen with a strong performance that might be the best of his television career.

He gets a lot of talent to go up against, including Michael Stuhlbarg as Richard Clarke and Peter Sarsgaard as Martin Schmidt. Even Bill Camp shows up as part of Daniel’s team, which gives the team a character to experience the trauma of terrorism through. However, all this talent actually feels underutilized. Probably Stuhlbarg suffers the most. It’s crazy to me that they wouldn’t give someone that talented more to do. Yet the way that the events unfold, we’re left wondering why we should care, especially in the context of the larger story.

One of the stars that may emerge from the series is Tahar Rahim. He gets a lot to do here, both as an analyst for a government agency and as a Muslim receiving negativity in a pre-9/11 world. He portrays Ali Soufan, a man who may have been able to stop the events of that tragic day had it not been for the CIA’s unwillingness to share information. It’s a strong performance, and if anyone gets a career boost, it should be Rahim.

Written by Alex GibneyLawrence Wright, and Dan Futterman, the series brings interesting ideas to the table. However, the dialogue is a bit stale at times, which is tough to get through. Luckily Gibney and John Dahl direct episodes well to build tension in a show that is focused on government bureaucracy. There’s plenty of positive aspects in the show, but ultimately it drags a bit. From time to time it gets bogged down in a side character that doesn’t seem to be of importance. They may pay off down the road, but in a mini-series, you have to trim some of the fat. The scenes are in the name of character development, so there is still hope they result in an emotional payoff.

“The Looming Tower” is interesting, and the talent involved makes it must-watch television. It’s a more bureaucratic “Homeland” or “24,” while showing the intricacies of government. The series is focused on dialogue and interpersonal conflict making it one of the better mini-series this year. If the story follows through to its natural end, it should become a highly interesting and emotionally fulfilling ride. At worst, it’s a cool look into the early days of counter-terrorism and the hunt for Bin Laden.

What did you think of “The Looming Tower?” Does Hulu have another hit series? Let us know in the comments below. 

“The Looming Tower” is currently streaming on Hulu. New episodes release every Wednesday. 

GRADE: (★★★)