Hulu’s dolefully potent “The Looming Tower,” drawn from journalist Lawrence Wright’s award-winning book, is about an America that no longer exists, barely recognizable in its pleated Dockers while typing desperate memos on Windows 95 computer screens, a nation obsessed with what happened between a president and a White House intern and only vaguely attuned to growing terrorist threats from Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
Every moment of this limited series looms, and looms heavily, and in case you still don’t get it, an early scene depicts “The Looming Tower’s” star — Jeff Daniels as the head of an New York-based FBI counterterrorism squad — passing in front of the still-standing twin towers of the World Trade Center. Watching it is an exercise in the inexorable.
Which means, as a TV show, that “The Looming Tower” is deliberately short on “Homeland”-style tension that builds toward an explosive outcome, since we already know exactly what explosive outcome awaits. It’s also missing “Homeland’s” constant desperation to give viewers their next adrenaline fix, which might come as a relief to those who like their TV shows about how intelligence informs policy to be as serious as possible without being a documentary. (I mean, have you been watching “Homeland” this season? With Carrie once more undermedicated and Saul trying to reason with redneck revolutionaries, while the inept President What’s-Her-Face has a slow-motion meltdown? Is it brilliantly prescient or beyond repair?)
In contrast, “The Looming Tower,” whose executive producers include documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Going Clear,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) and Dan Futterman (“Capote’), is a quietly methodical affair that homes in on the counterproductive rivalries between American intelligence offices as they urge different responses to increasingly ambitious and sophisticated terrorists.
Daniels plays John O’Neill, whose FBI team goes after bad guys in the field, usually in response to attacks, such as the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, which preoccupies much of the first three (of 10) episodes, which are available starting Wednesday (with new episodes following weekly).
O’Neill’s nemesis is a CIA analyst named Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard, playing a composite character fashioned from Wright’s book), who argues for preemptive bombing strikes on suspected al-Qaeda hideaways, based on intelligence he and his all-female staff collect and decipher at Langley. The sneering disdain between O’Neill and Schmidt is bluntly portrayed — almost too bluntly — and refereed by ambivalent Clinton-era officials, some played by familiar faces, such as Alec Baldwin as CIA Director George Tenet and Michael Stuhlbarg as National Security Council adviser Richard A. Clarke.
Schmidt already views the effort against bin Laden and his network as a war, while O’Neill views it as a matter of bringing criminals to trial. When the CIA traces a phone signal to what they believe is a remote al-Qaeda stronghold, Schmidt wants to bomb right away — civilian casualties be damned. (“The president is almost certainly going to have to come back from the Vineyard,” an official sighs.)
Told that O’Neill’s team is pursuing other suspected leads to terrorists in Africa, Schmidt seethes: “We’ll just end up with a bunch of turds in custody, while the leadership of al-Qaeda is walking blissfully around.”
“The Looming Tower,” however, is not merely about the clarity of hindsight. It’s about a nation and an intelligence community waiting, almost fatalistically, to be provoked into action. Daniels, coming off a memorable turn as the black hat in the Netflix western “Godless,” is quite at home in the role of O’Neill, an unsympathetic protagonist who cheats on his wife with a number of girlfriends and is hot-tempered with both his underlings and his superiors.
With only the first three episodes made available for this review, it’s impossible to tell whether “The Looming Tower” sustains its coolly fascinating pace and tenor through to the end. Tahar Rahim (“A Prophet”) gives a smart and sincere performance as Ali Soufan, a Muslim American agent on O’Neill’s squad. As Soufan’s faith grows stronger, he’s horrified by other Muslims who are either complicit or indifferent to terrorist schemes.
The show’s disclaimer about fudging some facts to smooth the story out makes it difficult to decide if you should Google along with it (or thumb through Wright’s book) trying to nail down its accuracy. Maybe it’s more watchable if you let yourself get lost in it and pay closer attention to its themes rather than its footnotes.
I was just mulling over this very matter earlier this week in a review of USA’s “Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.,” which also cuts corners and condenses facts in the name of narrative momentum and dramatic impact.
The problem, I guess, is the potential that these ambitious limited series about true events have to become the story of record, especially for audiences prone to watch a show about what happened rather than read deeply about it. The essential thrust of “The Looming Tower” has made it to the TV screen intact, but should the series have an obligation to tell it exactly like it was? Or will a creatively told story about the truth, which is sometimes very close to the truth, suffice?
In addition to being a story about all the coulda-woulda-shoulda that led up to 9/11, “The Looming Tower” has acquired, in this adaptation, the slight chill of forgotten history. Enough years have passed that the facts have become a bit more fungible, but the meaning is what remains. The real-life John O’Neill, for example, died in the North Tower collapse of the World Trade Center, where he was working as head of security after leaving the FBI.
When something so on-the-nose happens to a character on a show like “Homeland,” we either scoff at the implausibility or admire the symmetry in the storytelling — the irony, the tragedy. Here, a viewer might have a different reaction, wishing all of it was just another fictional drama about one set of people trying to stop another set of people from blowing up the world.
The Looming Tower begins streaming Wednesday on Hulu with the first three (of 10) episodes. New episodes will follow weekly.