We know how “The Looming Tower” ends. The new Hulu 10-episode miniseries, which premieres Wednesday, is based on Lawrence Wright’s book on the mixed signals, turf wars and missed opportunities within America’s intelligence agencies in the years leading up to the devastating terrorist attacks.
The fate of FBI agent John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels), who in the late 1990s vehemently argued that the country needed to take al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden more seriously, adds an ironic twist to a tragic ending. (I won’t spoil it if you don’t know.)
So there is a lot of weight on the series, created by documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney and writer Dan Futterman, to make a compelling series but to also do justice to such a momentous event. And while “Looming Tower” is often fine drama, it somehow feels like it should be better than fine.
Much of the show centers on the feud between O’Neill’s FBI and the CIA counterterrorism unit, known as Alec Station, led by the arrogant Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard, playing a composite character). In theory, the FBI and CIA are supposed to share intelligence, but Schmidt holds back, worried that the FBI will blunder in and ruin the agency’s investigation.
O’Neill and Schmidt argue like squabbling brothers in front of Clinton anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke (Michael Stuhlbarg). Meanwhile, O’Neill’s agents (including the great French actor Tahar Rahim of “A Prophet”) investigate smaller attacks, like the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, and pick up signals that something big is coming. But in the relative peace of the late 1990s, when the country was more focused on a blue dress, O'Neill has trouble getting the right people to listen.
In retrospect, the CIA’s recalcitrance in sharing intelligence seems damning, especially when personified by the self-satisfied, smirking Schmidt. O’Neill is painted as a classic hero, fighting bureaucracy to save lives, the one man in the room who was right when everybody else was wrong. Daniels plays O’Neill as a foul-mouthed force of nature, loved by his agents and loathed by his rivals.
But the show is so insistent on making O’Neill the good guy that it seems to miss something rather obvious — his grandstanding and tough-guy behavior was likely not helping with inter-agency communications and cooperation, either. If I was the CIA, would I want to help out the guy shouting in my face all the time? A little more moral ambiguity would have been welcome. The show also spends a lot of time on O'Neill's extensive extramarital affairs without revealing much insight into his character.
“Looming Tower” is full of good actors (but not enough good actresses, with female characters relegated to the margins of the story), and it tells a history lesson that needs to be remembered. But it somehow misses the chance to resonate on a much larger and deeper scale. What should be Greek tragedy ends up just being pretty good streaming drama.
Also on streaming: From “Black Adder” to “Mr. Bean,” Rowan Atkinson can make you laugh just by looking at him. But he gets serious in the new BritBox series “Maigret,” playing the French detective hero of author Georges Simenon’s many novels. The show premieres this Wednesday on the BBC’s streaming service. And, for comparison’s sake, BritBox is also screening the 1992 “Maigret” series starring the great Michael Gambon.
Veena Sud’s new Netflix series “Seven Seconds,” like her acclaimed AMC show “The Killing,” focuses on how one event has ripple effects throughout a community. This time, though, it’s a look at race relations in a small northeastern town. When a squad car accidentally hits and critically injures an African-American teenager, tensions between law enforcement and the community begin to boil over. The first season is now streaming.