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Great Cast of The Looming Tower Overcomes Narrative Flaws

Hulu is pulling out the big guns with the premiere of “The Looming Tower,” arguably their most star-studded project to date. Based on Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, this ten-episode series should truly fit the bill for anyone longing for the old days of Showtime’s “Homeland,” except this story happens to be true. It details the years before 9/11, back when no one knew who Al-Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden were, and how governmental incompetence and competition arguably led to that world-changing day when the towers fell. Sadly, "The Looming Tower" can sometimes feel a tad manipulative, but there’s still a lot to like here, particularly in the phenomenal ensemble that has award winners playing real people like George Tenet and Richard Clarke. 

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That ensemble is led by Jeff Daniels as John O’Neill, the chief of the New York’s Counter-Terrorism Unit, and a perfect character for Daniels in that he’s the kind of guy who often knows he’s the smartest man in the room but also has his share of flaws, especially on the domestic front. The series opens by revealing how much O’Neill and Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard), the head of the CIA’s Al-Qaeda unit, truly hate each other. Schmidt basically thinks that O’Neill wastes time trying to get indictments instead of taking action, and so he withholds information from him whenever possible, working with a team of women in a darkened conference room, including his only real ally, Diane Priest (Wrenn Schmidt).

In the premiere, set in 1998, they obtain a laptop that has information about Bin Laden’s plans but don’t share it with O’Neill. At the same time, Bin Laden goes on “60 Minutes” and essentially warns the world that he’s going to do something drastic. Watching the interview through the eyes of a far-more-paranoid world in 2018 is fascinating given how little impact it had back then. But John O’Neill knew something deadly was on the horizon. And so did Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim of “A Prophet”), a Muslim Lebanese-American FBI agent who just started in O’Neill’s unit. Soufan is regarded historically as someone who knew 9/11 was coming but couldn’t get the officials around him or the White House to act. In many ways, “The Looming Tower” is his story more than anyone’s.

As great as Daniels, Rahim, and Sarsgaard are, the supporting cast is arguably even better. Little in film and television makes me happier than the ascendancy of Bill Camp (“The Night Of”), who is fantastic here as Robert Chesney, a colleague of O’Neill’s who goes to Nairobi just before the 1998 embassy bombings and ends up investigating them. Camp has an interrogation scene in episode three that’s wonderful. Also great is the always-also-great Michael Stuhlbarg as Richard Clarke, the man who really served as the conduit/mediator between President Clinton and O’Neill/Schmidt, and Alec Baldwin pops up only briefly in episode three as George Tenet, but will likely return (Hulu sent only three for press).

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Directors Alex Gibney and John Dahl bring a nice balance of historical veracity and televised drama to “The Looming Tower” but the scripts sometimes veer a bit too broadly into contrivances, especially in relation to Chesney’s personal attachment to the bombing and an attack at the end of episode three. We don’t need that to stay invested in this story. And yet every time “The Looming Tower” threatens to spin off into melodrama completely, the cast (and talented directors) find a way to ground it. Ultimately, “The Looming Tower” is a dissection of incompetence, and how lack of communication and teamwork led to an international tragedy. It’s just complicated enough to feel historically accurate but not to push out viewers. In that sense, it balances historical commentary with what we still need from television most of all, whether it’s on cable or Hulu: entertainment. 

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