NEW YORK — When Hulu debuts the first episode of “The Looming Tower” on Wednesday, it will attempt a rare feat in post-9/11 Hollywood: Tell a slick scripted story of U.S. intelligence that isn’t fictional.
Entertainment and politics have intersected a lot lately, so it makes sense to see TV taking a big Washington swing.
But very few Hollywood creations, from the Jason Bourne movies to “Homeland,” try the trick of “The Looming Tower.” In telling about the rise of Islamic radicalism and the inadequacy of the United States’ response to it, the 10-episode show drapes only the thinnest action-thriller garb on a work of journalism, history and policy-critique.
“We wanted to show what the very significant issues were,” showrunner Dan Futterman said in an interview this month in New York, where he lives and the show was partly shot. “There were real problems, especially with intelligence-sharing among the FBI and CIA.”
And because “The Looming Tower” lacks the cover of invention in the manner of a “Homeland,” it’s a lot more likely to stir discontent among the agencies it’s chronicling.
The CIA, which “The Looming Tower” portrays in a worse light than the FBI, had for months said nothing.
But this week a spokesman broke the silence and dismissed the show to The Washington Post.
“There is a comprehensive, factual account of the 9/11 attacks and it is the work of the 9/11 Commission — not this made-for-TV series,” said the spokesman, Dean Boyd. The CIA did not cooperate with “The Looming Tower” producers, who had sought agency input, though producers had reached some ex-officers on their own.
The FBI did cooperate with the production, granting permission to talk to some agents, according to FBI spokesman Christopher Allen. He declined to further comment on the series.
At a time when the White House is at war with its own intelligence services — President Trump recently targeted the FBI for missing “all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter” — the series also vibrates with topicality.
Dramatized from Lawrence Wright’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Looming Tower” tells of FBI agents John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels) and Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim) and their counterparts at the CIA, embodied by composite character Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard), who began tracking the terrorist threat as it emerged in the 1990s.
The groups’ intelligence was often solid. But ego, territoriality and philosophical differences resulted in paralysis — and ultimately, the material suggests, lead to an inability to prevent 9/11. The FBI wanted access to intelligence it accused the CIA of hoarding. The CIA feared that sharing would cause an arrest-minded agency to blow its operation by apprehending lower-level suspects. So everyone sat pat as al-Qaeda grew stronger.
“There’s a natural antagonism between the CIA and FBI because they do things differently,” said Wright, the author, noting that matters have improved in the interim. “The lesson here is that [when they don’t] division can be fatal.”
While “The Looming Tower” gives airtime to each side’s motivations, the CIA comes off decidedly worse than the FBI in the first three episodes, which were made available to press. FBI agents are seen as hotheaded but well-meaning; CIA officers are at times depicted as arrogant and even dangerous.
Hulu executives say the show’s hot-button nature was part of its rationale for making it.
“We don’t court controversy, but we do feel it could spark a conversation,” said Craig Erwich, the company’s senior vice president of content. Hulu had a similar effect with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which generated a rich discussion about gender and patriarchy and won the best-drama Emmy in September.
Sarsgaard said he didn’t think the show “was blaming one side more than the other” but allowed that the CIA “did things you can question in hindsight.”
That critique has previously been made in published materials, such as the 9/11 Commission Report from 2004. It’s one thing to list findings in a dense document. But it’s another to suggest U.S. officers have blood on their hands in premium, star-laden entertainment.
“One of the hopes here is that this series can be an agent provocateur to ask tough questions about what happened,” said Alex Gibney, who created the series with Wright and directed the first episode. “We felt enough time had passed that Americans were ready to reckon with the problem.”
He added that the populist tool of a streaming series could ensure a new swath of the public understands how the intelligence community failed it. “There’s been a huge refusal in many quarters to criticize the CIA for fear of undermining the morale of the agency,” Gibney said. “I find that to be a kind of cheap excuse. It’s time the agency was held to account, because I don’t think anyone has done that.”
The real-life Soufan, who helped produce the series, said that “all the documents that are dumped in FOIA requests are very different from being able to watch events and connect it to characters. Hopefully this will start changing minds,” added the former agent, who now runs a security consulting firm.
The CIA’s Boyd declined to say what the prospect of a popular TV series could do to the agency’s image or the views of its policies. But there is precedent for it changing how people perceive the agency.
One of the few other times Hollywood undertook a fact-based story about the agency, with Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden story “Zero Dark Thirty,” the CIA set out to shape its reception. By chronicling how torture played a role in the manhunt, Sony Pictures’ December 2012 release had painted the agency in a competent but problematic light, prompting a backlash from both the CIA and elected officials.
Michael Morell, who was the acting agency director at the time, said then that the film “departs from reality” and urged Americans not to trust its portrayal of events. Statements like that, along with those from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and other politicians, turned the movie into a D.C. football and sunk its once golden best-picture chances.
That pattern could be repeated here. Futterman sought to play down the comparison — “that dealt with a fundamental issue [of] ‘did a piece of information come from torture?’ ” — and he acknowledged both the precedent and the fact that the once-nonpartisan task of intelligence-gathering had become more politicized in the years since that movie came out.
Part of why “The Looming Tower” feels so journalistic is because it was made by journalists. Wright teamed up with Gibney, the Oscar-winning documentarian who has targeted topics including the Stuxnet virus and Scientology, the latter also based on a Wright book. They hired Futterman, screenwriter of fact-based movies such as “Capote” and “Foxcatcher,” to craft a historical tale.
But principals also underscore how “The Looming Tower” has parallels to the present moment, what with the White House slamming the intelligence community.
“These partisan attacks on intelligence agencies we’re seeing now are another form of division, but they’re also dangerous,” Wright said. “We still have these divisions, and they weaken us.”