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‘The Looming Tower’ Is Missing a Message

Hulu’s miniseries about the buildup to 9/11 is stocked with a momentous true story and a cast of important actors, but it takes more than that to make a great TV show

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A few years ago, every television drama wanted its own Difficult Man. The right antihero could make not only a series but an entire network: Don Draper and Walter White turned AMC from the channel where you watch Philadelphia at 1 a.m. on a Tuesday into a prestige-drama powerhouse.

But the antihero doesn’t get you as far as it used to. Television’s moved on from the Difficult Man to the ’90s True-Crime Story, a cultural and creative shift that’s nothing short of brilliant. The decade between the Cold War and the war on terror was unique in recent American history for its prosperity and lack of persistent existential fear, which led to no shortage of events of relatively minor geopolitical impact but explosive cultural penetration. In other words, two decades later, there’s no shortage of source material to mine.

Hulu’s entry into the genre is The Looming Tower, a 10-part limited series about the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the years before the September 11 attacks, and the turf war between the FBI and CIA that probably kept the federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies from preventing those attacks. Jeff Daniels stars as the Difficult Man, FBI counterterrorism chief John O’Neill; Peter Sarsgaard stars in Paul Giamatti drag as Martin Schmidt, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit; and Tahar Rahim stars as rookie FBI agent Ali Soufan.

The Looming Tower is based on the Pulitzer-winning nonfiction book of the same name by Lawrence Wright. Twice-Oscar-nominated screenwriter Dan Futterman wrote the first episode, which was directed by Alex Gibney, the documentary filmmaker behind Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.

Despite owning The Handmaid’s Tale, which won eight Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series, Hulu is still leaning into the prestige-drama game, playing catch-up with not only cable networks but other streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. If the collection of talent working on The Looming Tower is any indication, this show is supposed to be a critical hit and cultural touchstone. The series—even beyond the names in the opening credits—looks as though it cost at least $50 million to make.

The problem is, that was money wasted: Given the involvement of Daniels, Gibney, and Futterman, The Looming Tower is shockingly, disconcertingly bad. How did this group of people, with this raw material, come together to create such an abject, comprehensive failure? That’s a mystery worthy of a true-crime series of its own.

The Looming Tower’s most obvious problem is that its writers confused sophomoric vulgarity with edginess, and edginess with intelligence. In the first 10 minutes, Schmidt’s sidekick refers to a pair of FBI agents as “the retarded twins,” which might be a nod to how people used that word in 1998, but even if that insult was acceptable then, it was never particularly clever. Daniels, as O’Neill, tells one of his subordinates to “Suck me,” twice in the first minute of the first episode, which ought to establish him as an assholish-but-driven boss, which he is. Only, after the second “suck me,” you’re no longer paying attention to O’Neill’s monologue because you’re trying to figure out who in the history of the English language has ever said “suck me.” And now you’ve got to rewind because you missed O’Neill’s speech on how the FBI doesn’t take terrorism seriously and the CIA isn’t sharing its intelligence like it’s supposed to.

Shortly thereafter, O’Neill and Soufan share a drink at Elaine’s, where they’re joined by a TV reporter who’s just interviewed bin Laden. When the reporter complains that his network was less concerned with his story than “Monica Lewinsky’s cum-stained dress,” O’Neill responds, “See, I don’t get that. I’ve cum on a lot of dresses. Nobody wants to hear about those.”

Dialogue like this has two negative effects. The first is that while great actors can elevate bad dialogue, sometimes bad dialogue just reduces great actors. Often in The Looming Tower, you can see Daniels working like crazy to get blood from a stone; at other times, his delivery is perfunctory, community theater–level flat, or you can hear him chewing on his contempt for the words he has to say. And he’s the marquee actor in whose basket The Looming Tower puts all its eggs.

The second effect from encountering dialogue like this—and encountering it so early on—is that it takes you out of the experience. And once you’re out, you start looking for loose threads. Why do multiple characters refer to the Battle of Mogadishu as “Black Hawk Down” a year before the book and three years before the movie? Schmidt’s contention that the FBI would concentrate on arresting small-time operatives rather than finding Al Qaeda leadership seems like an argument worth exploring, so why isn’t it?

Viewers can figure out on their own that America is preoccupied with scandal while facing a serious threat without longing shots of the World Trade Center or persistent references to Lewinsky. Schmidt is a bearded creep whose employees are mostly young women—we can draw our own conclusions without O’Neill calling them “the Manson Family.” And while the show portrays Soufan’s job as preventing him from having a normal personal life, O’Neill has not one but two extramarital dalliances in the very first episode. The show gleefully devotes time that could be spent tracking down terrorists on exchanges like: “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” “You know I keep my firearm on my ankle.” Maybe it’s because without those mistresses, The Looming Tower would barely have enough female characters to fill out a basketball team. Though given the type and depth of those characters, it might be more feminist—certainly more merciful to the viewers—to leave them out entirely.

By the time you’re done pulling loose threads, all that’s left is the subject matter itself. That’s the biggest problem.

The appeal of this wave of true-crime shows is that younger viewers can tune in out of curiosity about names and events they’ve heard of but don’t remember, while older viewers can revisit important news stories of their own youth—all within the familiar framework of a cops-and-lawyers procedural. It’s Adam Schiff telling Jack McCoy to make a deal, only with bigger-name actors and more expensive special effects. Meanwhile, filmmakers can use the events of our past to make a point about our present—or in the case of American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, to make 14 different points all at once. It’s the perfect blend of middlebrow procedural/docudrama and prestige message television.

But you need to have a message. Even a show like Waco has important things to say about the militarization of police in the United States, though it delivers its message somewhat clumsily. The 9/11 attacks are the watershed moment of recent American history, one that’s sent our country into a war that’s two decades old and counting, with innumerable consequences in our own culture and throughout the world. Unsurprisingly, television and film have taken the past 15 years to ask questions about the war on terror and its consequences. Zero Dark Thirty asked if it’s worth the cost to our national conscience; Charlie Wilson’s War asked to what degree the U.S. was complicit in the creation of its own enemy; The Kingdom asked if it’s even effective; and Syriana asked all three.

Through three episodes, it seems that The Looming Tower’s overriding message is that internecine departmental conflicts within the American counterterrorism community allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen. That’s not news. That’s not controversial. And even if it were, what does relitigating that drama get us now? There’s no takeaway like “torture is bad” or “disarm the cops” in The Looming Tower, no philosophical conflict for the viewer to mull over between episodes, and no epiphany to be had that might change how the viewer looks at the world.

The most interesting thing about The Looming Tower is that it exists as proof that plugging successful filmmakers and actors into a story that fits the current televisual fashion does not automatically make for great television. It’s not enough to reach back into the 1990s and say “I’ve got to get one of those” if the end result lacks maturity and curiosity.

It’s easy to copy a hot TV trend, but it’s harder than you’d think to make a good TV show.