Hulu has a buzzworthy hit on its hands with “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But “The Looming Tower,” a densely reported work about the rise of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, may well be a tougher book to translate to the small screen.
Fictionalizations of complex sagas about terrorism tend to gloss over the messiest, most troubling details. Composite characters are too often turned into nearly omniscient sages who were ignored at every turn — a kind of reduction that can be ahistorical as well as irritating. It can also be challenging to drum up interest in events viewers are already aware of without going to extremes or relying on preposterous melodrama, a tendency that overtook fictional dramas like “24” and “Homeland” in later seasons.
But like the team that pulled off the Margaret Atwood adaptation, the one behind Hulu’s “The Looming Tower” approached the project with an attitude that was serious without being overly reverential. The result is an accessible, illuminating series that does not downplay the petty and tragic elements of the tale.
The show’s core creative team is composed of “Looming Tower” author Lawrence Wright and executive producers Dan Futterman and Alex Gibney. The three collaborators come from different worlds: Futterman made his mark in scripted entertainment (“Capote”), Wright has written a great deal of serious nonfiction (“The Looming Tower” won a Pulitzer Prize), and Gibney is best known for his string of award-winning documentaries.
The series briskly blends the best of each of these storytelling styles: There’s no air of triumphalism informing the story, characters are treated with both skepticism and a dash of compassion, and there are efforts to make victims of terrorism more than props for the protagonists to mourn. Though a chyron at the start of each episode reminds viewers that the tale and people in it have been “composited,” the story does not seem to be unduly watered down. It’s been streamlined but not drained of moral or political complexity.
It’s mildly ironic that such a smooth synthesis depicts a tale of bitter turf wars, messy investigations, and clashing agendas. Jeff Daniels plays John O’Neill, a tough yet genial New York FBI agent who leads the I-49 squad, a team of agents tracking threats from Islamic extremists. His right-hand men are Robert Chesney (Bill Camp), a dogged investigator, and relatively new agent Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim), who was born in Lebanon and whose assistance ends up being invaluable.
O’Neill’s nemesis, Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard), runs a CIA desk devoted to similar investigations, but Schmidt and his Alec Station minions defy orders to share information with O’Neill’s team. Schmidt’s objections to involving the FBI contain some logic — he’s worried the aggressive O’Neill’s desire to bag low- and mid-level suspects will impede the CIA’s attempts to learn who is leading various terrorist plots.
As the first three episodes play out, Schmidt — and the CIA in general — comes off as arrogant in the extreme. The story seems to lean on the idea that O’Neill’s recommendations to his D.C. bosses were more proactive and helpful than Schmidt’s. That said, “The Looming Tower” rightly resists using hindsight to declare any one viewpoint correct. Deciding who in the spy world has the best strategy or intelligence is often a matter of perspective — and influence. The charming O’Neill has an advantage — much of his work is conducted in pubs and convivial restaurants — but his superiors are often distracted by other matters, including the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
If the bullishness of the FBI and the condescension of the CIA are embodied in each man, they are both are quite watchable simply as people. Their flaws and styles of bureaucratic infighting are key elements of the story, and the key characters (all of them male) have the texture of real human beings, not superhuman heroes. Whatever their differences and perceived mistakes, O’Neill and Schmidt both clearly care about defending America. But because they can’t find common ground, the very disasters they want to keep at bay begin to cascade in ominous ways.
Bill Camp, such a joy in “The Night Of,” does a similarly terrific job here; to some degree, “The Looming Tower” is the story of police work, and Camp makes interviews and interrogation scenes gripping through sheer charisma and skill. Another key member of the strong cast is Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Clinton White House adviser Richard Clarke. He must act as the referee between Schmidt and O’Neill, and Stuhlbarg gives wonderful nuance to Clarke’s canny, persevering patience.
The drama is not without its flaws: The attempts to depict Soufan’s personal life fall flat, and there’s not much context regarding what caused al-Qaida to rise in the first place. There were other threads of investigation and other players in the game back then, but in the early going, the focus is relatively narrow. All that said, the show takes a subject we thought we knew and skillfully excavates its history without acting as the cheerleader for any particular agenda.
By not resorting to heavy-handedness, “The Looming Tower” deftly conveys the idea that, despite an array of reasonably decent intentions, what transpired among intelligence agencies in the years leading up to Sept. 11 was a tragedy, one we’ll continue to mull over for years.