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First As Tragedy, Then As Miniseries

Two announced streaming series will tackle the intelligence community. Is Colin Farrell playing Oliver North brilliant, batty, or both?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It’s been a heady stretch for the United States intelligence community. The simmering, months-long feud between the 17 government agencies that make up the IC and President Donald Trump, who won’t stop insulting them, has brought the shadowy federal bodies into clearer view than at just about any other time in American history. But Monday brought the news that the IC is going full Hollywood, with not one but two major casting notices for streaming television shows about true-story intelligence gathering and conspiracy. Peak TV comes for everyone, including the spooks.

The news: first, that Peter Sarsgaard has been cast in The Looming Tower, Hulu’s adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-winning book about the rise of Al Qaeda, the handful of intelligence agents at the CIA and FBI who saw the threat, and the infighting between those agencies along the path to September 11. Sarsgaard will play a CIA agent unwilling to share information with his FBI counterpart. (You can imagine how that played out.) It’s stellar casting; no one does squirrelly like Sarsgaard. But it’s not even the most exciting pick this show’s made. That’s because last week, Jeff Daniels was announced in the role of John O’Neill, the beyond-dogged FBI agent who spearheaded the Bureau’s late-’90s hunt for Osama bin Laden. I look forward to Daniels slamming his fist against a number of tables, using a series of preposterously large cellular phones, and rocking the everloving shit out of that navy-and-yellow windbreaker.

Shot, meet chaser: COLIN FARRELL IS GONNA PLAY OLLIE NORTH. Let me be clear: Colin Farrell and his director on The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos, are teaming up to bring the story of the Iran-Contra affair to Amazon. Quick AP History recap: Oliver North, you’ll recall, was a member of Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council, and one of the actors responsible for the funneling of illegal arms money to the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua. These days, North is famous for hosting a television show on Fox News and appearing in commercials for video games, but he’s really a terrific villain for Lanthimos: a combination of bone-certain and extremely dim. Expect bureaucratic satire, painfully awkward moments, and a dash of Léa Seydoux–in–The Lobster martial intensity.

Here’s the part where I ask whether this is a good idea. Lanthimos and Farrell have done excellent work together, and the prospect of their take on 1980s office buildings and poorly constructed conspiracies thrills me to no end. But I wonder if that’s the right approach — if the story of a renegade member of the National Security Council (ring any bells?) should be played as farce-cum-tragedy, as Lanthimos is sure to do. I don’t think the guys in the IC laugh much.

I’ve got similar, albeit more muted, reservations about The Looming Tower. I love office arguments, and Peter Sarsgaard snarling, and that one little lock of Jeff Daniels’s hair flipping up when he gets mad. But The Looming Tower is a sprawling, slow-building work; it opens with a gentle description of the Colorado town where Sayyid Qutb, the philosophical forefather of Al Qaeda, studied as a young man. Daniels and Sarsgaard’s characters don’t even really appear in the first half of the book, which primarily focuses on the creation of the bin Laden family’s construction empire in Saudi Arabia, and Osama’s time fighting the Russians in Afghanistan.

Perhaps Hulu’s adaptation will only focus on the second half, the years leading up to 9/11 — a choice borne of narrative concision, maybe, or a concession to the controversy a television show starring Osama bin Laden would guarantee. But to do so would be to miss the whole story: to turn characters like bin Laden and Qutb, rendered three-dimensional by Wright, into by-the-books enemies for Jeff Daniels to yell about on his way to an Emmy reel.

I’ve asked before if Peak TV, in its quest to tell literally every story available, can manage the nuance and moral ambivalence that narratives about covert government dealings require. The History Channel’s Six, a prestige-aspiring miniseries about Navy SEALs, couldn’t pull that off. (It was recently given a second season; CBS is cooking up its own SEAL show, too.) Can Farrell and Lanthimos, or Daniels and Sarsgaard? I’ve got my doubts, and also my hopes. (I really love Jeff Daniels, you guys.) But as the intelligence community further asserts itself as both a check on an antagonistic president and an entrenched element of state power, it’s clear that these are urgent stories to tell. Here’s hoping the intelligence bears out.