Though grave, The Looming Tower is hardly a patriotic hagiography for the lawmen who doggedly, and fruitlessly, pursued Osama bin Laden throughout the 1990s. The Hulu series outlines the cocktail of hubris, complacency, and ego that blinded America’s top intelligence figures to Al Qaeda’s impending September 11 attacks. It unflinchingly dissembles the entirety of the failure of the United States government, and assigns blame to individuals like John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels), the F.B.I.’s foremost bin Laden hunter in the years preceding 9/11, and C.I.A. analyst Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard).
The Looming Tower offers an uncharitable portrayal of O’Neill that’s emblematic of the show’s assessment of the events preceding 9/11. While he occasionally resembles a quintessential G-Man, determined and righteous, the series also reveals him to be a tactless bully and a font of toxic machismo. His characteristically cavalier outbursts are often frustratingly wrongheaded, especially when volatile trade-offs between O’Neill and Schmidt are informed more by inter-agency competition and personal ego than disagreement over the best course of action. For his part, Schmidt behaves with an irresponsibility that borders on negligence: He withholds critical information from the F.B.I. on numerous occasions, solely to garner prestige for the C.I.A.
Unlike Lawrence Wright’s nonfiction book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which focuses largely on bin Laden’s rise as a global terrorist leader and the mechanics of the Kenya and U.S.S. Cole bombings, this TV adaption is far more interested in American failure than in the terrorist’s ingenuity and ideology. Specifically, it homes in on the homogeneous mix of meaty, thick-necked white men who wittily spar over cigars and whiskey while the Al Qaeda leader plots 9/11. Daniels plays O’Neill with the same sense of baby boomer superiority he brought to The Newsroom, and Alec Baldwin, as C.I.A. director George Tenet, effectively appears as, well, himself. Bill Camp elevates sweaty dishevelment to an art form as agent Robert Chesney, but The Looming Tower otherwise presents a group of likeminded, larded, and complacent professionals. The series suggests the failure of American intelligence in the years before 9/11 was largely one of imagination.
The show’s F.B.I. and C.I.A. operatives seem unable to conceive of Al Qaeda’s ability to strike a blow on U.S. soil. Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim), one of only eight F.B.I. agents fluent in Arabic at the time, is treated by his colleagues with a mixture of apprehension and guarded optimism: He’s an outsider but also a potential source of untapped insight into the workings of Middle Eastern terrorism. Soufan, a bookish workaholic, appears as invested as any of his fellow agents but is relegated to the sidelines of the ongoing power struggle between O’Neill, Schmidt, and Clarke; he can only observe from the margins as self-serving agency heads hoard vital intelligence like trophies for their respective agencies rather than collaborate to define the Al Qaeda threat.
Despite their inadequacy, O’Neill and the other agents can be considered sympathetic figures if only for the cataclysmic consequences of their failure. While outlining interagency squabbling and personal vendettas, the series manages an elegiac tone, framing O’Neill, Schmidt, and others as both unwitting enablers of disaster and sacrificial lambs of a misguided American epoch; nothing in The Looming Tower suggests malevolence, but rather an unearned pride and hunger for personal accomplishment unsuited for the (looming) threat. In numerous instances throughout the series, O’Neill professes his love of country with a matter-of-fact, undramatic dryness; we’re meant to believe in his conviction while questioning his methods.
Periodic forays into O’Neill’s private life ultimately feel frivolous, as the writers never make a compelling argument that his sexual appetites somehow inform, or are informed by, his professional ambition. His escapades appear entirely insignificant alongside major historical tragedies such as the Kenya embassy bombing, and The Looming Tower’s insistence on monitoring his dalliances begets some truly odd moments: One montage, set to bubbly Arabic hip-hop, cuts between Soufan praying at a mosque and Daniels in bed with his mistress. Whenever it glimpses into the private lives of men like O’Neill, The Looming Tower accentuates these individuals’ character flaws, but it leaves us only with a sense of conflicted anticipation, waiting for O’Neill and his cohorts to return to work so that we can witness their critical failures.