Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched the finale of Hulu’s “The Looming Tower,” titled “9/11.”
It’s strange to start an article about “The Looming Tower” with a spoiler alert, given that the world knows exactly what happened on that tragic day in 2001. All season long, the drama has been leading up to the climactic moment when the attacks occurred. But for the creators of the show, that denouement was almost secondary, hoping instead to shed light not on what happened, but why it happened.
In the finale episode, titled simply “9/11,” the characters slowly realize that former FBI boss John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels) died in the collapse of the Twin Towers, where he’d been working as the head of security. But we also learn more just how insidious the battle between the CIA and the FBI over critical information about the terrorists was, and how far each side went to protect their intelligence.
Here, showrunner Dan Futterman breaks down the emotional finale — the decisions about what to show (and what not to), the portrayal of Condoleeza Rice, the response from the intelligence community, and whether they’ll do a second season.
Do you think “Looming Tower” is starting the conversations you wanted to start, or at least putting things out there that you wanted people to be thinking about?
You know, I do think so. I mean, when people talk to me about it at least, they, and these are politically engaged people, they are shocked by some of the things that they have seen on the show. Shocked at the withholding of information. And this is stuff that’s been public, some of it’s been public knowledge for a while, but it just doesn’t have a way of sinking in unless you see it visually, you see it in front of you. I was at a reading last night, and Tom Fontana said, “Oh, I’ve been watching your show, man, I cannot believe the stuff that went on there.” And he was going on and on about it, and, I mean, this is a smart guy, an engaged guy, but I think it inevitably surprises people, that people working on taxpayer dollar did the things that they did.
Were you surprised when you were doing your research, or were you already aware of it?
Yeah, I was. Honestly, I had not read “Looming Tower” when it came out. And I read Larry [Wright]’s article, “The Agent,” which was primarily about Ali Soufan but also talked about John O’Neill. And then talked about this withholding of information, including when Ali Soufan would directly request information when he was investigating the (U.S.S.) Cole (bombing). And that to me seemed so shocking, and seemed so rich a topic to make a show about. As well as the character of John O’Neill, and what he went through, and how his life ended. Being able to express that felt important to all of us.
Have you heard from anyone within the CIA, or the FBI for that matter, with their response to the show?
Really, exclusively the FBI. We got fairly close to a couple of members in particular, former or current members of the JTTF, Joint Terrorism Task Force, one of whom was a guy who was stationed within Alec Station. And he wrote, “God bless you for telling this story.” It’s sort of shocking how much they had at their disposal.
What do you think it was that really just stood in their way? Was it ego, was it control of information?
It’s a good question. I guess it’s both. When you say “ego,” it’s not necessarily evil. I mean, it’s ego, meaning “we can deal with this better than anybody else can.” That they will screw this up, this is too important to let them deal with this, and we are genuine patriots, and we’ve been tasked with keeping America safe. All of that stuff is fed in, is bundled in with ego. It’s not just a bad word. And so yes, I think ego was part of it, and control of information absolutely, but that’s part of that same thing. I think there was a feeling, that for very, very good reasons, they needed to do this. And so they did it. And I hope we express that on the show, I hope that when people see that, you understand the motivation. It was our intention to understand the motivation behind withholding this information.
The show makes it clear, though, that Wrenn Schmidt’s CIA agent Diane Marsh was lying when she testified before Congress. When she’s on the stand, she’s saying things that we know are not true, that we’ve seen to not be true. It’s uncomfortable to watch her lying, but she did. Or is that the point you were trying to make?
Well, a lot of people do [lie]. I think if you’re going to continue to live here, you’re going to have to get comfortable with that.
The show is also particularly harsh on Condi Rice. Was that something that came out of the research?
It is. I would say there seems to be a general consensus that there was a group of people who got brought in under the second President Bush, who were stuck in an era that was pre-Al-Qaeda. And didn’t understand it, and maybe were not curious enough to understand it. You remember that she was a Russian expert, and I think there was a general sense that she had a Cold War mindset, or just post-Cold War, having gone through that with the first President Bush. And so this notion of stateless actors against America was not something that, according to what we researched, something that she was so apt to understand easily. It is abundantly clear from what Richard Clark had to say, that there was a deep frustration with her and with the lack of access that was caused by her, lack of access to the President. That he had with Clinton, and didn’t have anymore with Bush.
After the attacks, there’s that ominous line, when she says to him, “Rumsfeld wants the attack linked to Iraq.”
I think Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and that crew were very clear, and this comes from a number of sources, very early on in that administration that Saddam Hussein left standing under the first Bush was a mistake. And needed to be rectified.
What moment resonates the most for you?
There’s so many. I think it was a little bit of a surprise, at least to me, how important it became, but the notion of Ali Soufan working so hard to rescue his religion from people who are hijacking it. There’s a moment at the end where he finally breaks through to Abu Jandal, that feels like we’ve been spending the entire season working up to that moment. Finally, he gets what he’s been trying to get — not from other people, not from Americans — but rescuing somebody back from a fundamental misunderstanding of their shared religion. That, to me, I find that very moving every time I see it.
That was a scene that got heavily rehearsed, unusual for a TV show. And there was so much, whatever the Islamic word is for Talmudic discussion amongst the actors, all of whom are Muslim, in that scene, in terms of, how exactly should they refer to some of these Koranic verses, how would they be presented to one another? And it was really interesting to be a part of that, particularly as a Jew, who was interested, but didn’t have this deep history attached to this kind of religious investigation.
We talked before the show launched about how you were going to treat the attack, and how you were going to treat the death of John O’Neill. Now on the other side of it, how does it feel? Was it what you intended?
I feel like we made the right decisions. There was a lot of discussion about that. And as you can imagine, there are a lot of different ways one could approach that day. It felt important to all of the writers on the staff that we approach it with, first of all, with respect. Because there are presumably going to be people watching it who were directly affected by that day, having lost loved ones, or friends, or family. But also we wanted to try to recapture that experience, that almost everybody that remembers that day had, of being outside it, of not knowing exactly what was happening. And there was a panic inherent in that. And we really get that, in particular though Ali Soufan, who’s half a world away, and cannot figure out what’s happening. And slowly over the course of the day it starts to dawn on him, “I think I lost my friend, I think I lost my mentor.” And to me, that captures something really fundamental about that day, through one of the characters we’ve come to know and love, rather than getting involved in some kind of re-created action sequence downtown. It just felt so wrong to us to go that route.
Instead we learn the truth of O’Neill’s death in Bill Camp’s scene with O’Neill’s girlfriend, Liz. There’s so much that’s unsaid when he shows up at her door covered in dust.
The image of people covered in dust like that is just something I think everybody remembers from that day. We tried to be really sparing and careful in the footage that we used from that day. You’ve seen enough of it by the time you see him to know, whoa, oh, right, this is what we’re evoking. And he’s so incredibly good as an actor, he carries so much with saying so little. I love that scene, and I love the two of them in that scene. You get the trauma that he’s been through, and also his deep sadness at losing somebody who he also had a complicated relationship with. But at heart, they were brothers in arms in this fight. And I think that just spills out of him, in a powerful way.
Was that voicemail message real? Was that a real voicemail that John had left?
No, I wrote that, but this is the kind of decision that you make. He apparently left voicemails for each of the women he was involved with. And so you make a decision: Do you want to go down that road, or do you want to just show the woman, the one woman you’ve come to know the best, and the woman he probably should have been with, had he been brave enough to make that choice, had enough self-control to make that choice? And just show it through the lens of her loss of him. And so we decided to do that.
Talk about the decision to end on real footage from the day. Is that a decision that reflects documentarian Alex Gibney’s involvement?
Alex Gibney was the first one to talk, at the very beginning of this process, about integrating documentary and news footage into the series as a whole. In the writers’ room, we decided generally in this tenth episode that we should as much as possible separate those things. Because there’s a kind of sacredness to that footage, we felt, that it shouldn’t be mixed with actors within it. And we do a little bit of it in the episode, where it felt necessary in terms of shifting from Yemen to New York, giving a little bit of a breath in terms of the narrative that’s being told reminding people where we are in the day. But as little as possible was the decision we made. And then let’s save the last act, to be just that, and get back to the full reality of that day, try to honor the people who were actually there. Most of them were emergency workers. So it’s both a continuation of the thing we set up, and a slight departure from it in that we were separating it out from the show.
Looking ahead, do you think you’ll do a second season, and what would a second season look like?
I don’t know. If we did, it would be very different. Because this story so clearly ends. And so while we’ve kind of talked in general terms about it, no decision has been made. And no decision has been made as to what characters would even be important to continue, or bring in as new characters, and there are a number of different possibilities in terms of time-frames, you could go back in time, you could go forward in time, I really don’t know what’s going to happen. And nor have we gotten word from Hulu of, “Yes, we want to do this.” I think there’s a sense on a lot of people’s parts that we’re all so proud of what it is. And do we want to change that experience by making it part of an ongoing thing? I don’t know. It may be that letting it live as this miniseries may be the best choice for everybody.