Hulu’s “Looming Tower”: So, the Race to Stop al-Qaeda Looked Like a Cable Drama?


In the opening moments of The Looming Tower, Hulu’s new ten-part miniseries dramatizing the rising threat of al-Qaeda in the years leading up to 9/11, the camera follows a fetching young CIA agent (Wrenn Schmidt) down a dark stairwell and into a bunker-like office in the CIA’s counterterrorism unit. “We have the hard drive,” she tells her boss, Martin Schmidt, played by Peter Sarsgaard. “Good girl,” he replies.

It’s a telling start to a surprisingly conventional series, which is based on Lawrence Wright’s 2006 Pulitzer-winning The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Wright’s groundbreaking book tracked both the ideological development of al-Qaeda’s founders and American counterintelligence agencies’ response to the group’s growing threat. Hulu’s version, executive-produced by Wright, documentarian Alex Gibney, and screenwriter Dan Futterman, takes the book’s key insight — that an organization’s effectiveness depends on effective communication and strong personal relationships — and flattens it into a cable cliché: As Bill Camp’s FBI agent Robert Chesney intones before interrogating a bombing suspect, “This time, it’s personal.”

Such platitudes abound in the first three episodes of The Looming Tower, which feels sourced from the moody antihero dramas of the mid-2000s. There’s the crusty-but-soft-centered boss (Camp) with a potty mouth and a staff of impossibly attractive young underlings. We get dialogue that veers into satire territory (“This motherfucker bin Laden wasn’t kidding around”), and that moment where a character turns on the TV to hear the news and it just happens to already be on the right channel. And, of course, there’s the mano a mano dynamic between FBI special agent John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels) and Sarsgaard’s Schmidt, O’Neill’s antagonistic counterpart at the CIA, which ultimately proves calamitous: “Fuck John O’Neill,” Schmidt tells an FBI agent after refusing to share his team’s information.

That intelligence agents let petty personal squabbles affect their work is clear in the book. That the female characters are so thinly drawn they’d disappear if you looked at them in profile is unique to the show. O’Neill, the central figure in Wright’s book, really was a womanizer, but does that necessitate the scene, early in the pilot, in which he comes home to his much younger, much hotter girlfriend (a woefully underused Annie Parisse) and engages in sexy cop banter (“Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”) before lifting her up off her kitchen chair to ravage her? Later, when O’Neill calls her to tell her he can’t make it for dinner (he’s got a date with his other girlfriend; a true American hero), she’s already preparing the lasagna he likes — the kitchen, apparently, being her favorite room in the apartment. It’s strikingly similar to the pilot of Mad Men, which, like The Looming Tower, has the bad-boy protagonist dropping in on his mistress(es) before returning home to his wife and kids at the end of the hour.

In The Looming Tower, women seem to exist mostly to illustrate how busy and important their men are. Ali Soufan (played by the wonderful French actor Tahar Rahim), a Lebanese-born FBI agent and O’Neill’s protégé, has just begun dating a woman named Heather (Ella Rae Peck) when the series begins. But the love interest feels superfluous, tossed into the mix to help humanize Soufan, since, like O’Neill’s girlfriends, Heather doesn’t appear to have a life of her own; she’s another woman who pops up on the other end of the phone to pout when her man can’t make it, and to smile when he tells her how blue her eyes are.

Of course, not every female character is a wife or girlfriend. But the show just doesn’t seem all that interested in women beyond the context of their flirtations with men. The reason “it’s personal” for Chesney to catch the man who bombed the Nairobi embassy in 1998 is because he recently slept with the embassy’s station chief, who was there at the time of the attack. Like so many of The Looming Tower’s romantic relationships, she’s gorgeous and he’s…played by a great actor. Martin’s protégé at the CIA is Diane Priest (Schmidt), the woman with the hard drive at the start of the series, whom one FBI agent refers to as “the redhead.” (Both Martin and Diane are composite characters.) We’re meant to understand that she’s crucial to the CIA’s efforts, but so far we only see her alongside Martin, as if she doesn’t exist when he’s away. I don’t doubt there was a young CIA agent like Diane who worked with someone like Martin, but was she really as hot as Wrenn Schmidt? Did she really have that much eye sex with her boss?

These complaints may sound incidental to the account of how American intelligence officials failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks. And The Looming Tower makes those complaints all too easy to dismiss, because these men are such unimpeachable heroes — they were trying to prevent 9/11! But gender politics are not incidental to this story, and it’s not clear the creators understand that, or, at least, want to go there. In the third episode, Soufan tells a Scotland Yard officer that the United Kingdom should take more stringent security measures against potential terrorists. But the officer dismisses his concerns, arguing the would-be terrorists are just a ragtag bunch of losers who pick up guns because they can’t get girlfriends. He doesn’t stop to consider how potent a motivator that might be; as we’re all reminded every time another high-profile shooting occurs in this country, almost every “gunman” has a history of domestic violence. From what I’ve seen, the series doesn’t really broach this aspect of the rise of fundamentalism, either — an ironic blind spot for a series about a threat no one took seriously enough because they failed to understand why it was important.

The Looming Tower is a show about the human relationships that keep systems functioning — and how when those relationships break down, the system does, too. The show’s creators clearly appreciate how casual bigotry can affect national security; in the pilot, O’Neill points out that the FBI only has eight Arabic speakers out of a thousand agents: “That’s how seriously our government takes this threat.” But, in the three episodes I’ve seen, it largely ignores the book’s most valuable trove of information: the intellectual roots of al-Qaeda, a story that began when Egyptian Muslim Sayyid Qutb spent the years between 1948 and 1950 in the United States and deemed it a “spiritual wasteland,” in no small part because of the sexual freedom the women there seemed to enjoy.

The choice to narrow the scope of the series to a familiar cops-and-bandits plot is a missed opportunity to explain the roots of radical Islam — and an ironic mirroring of the very ignorance that lead American intelligence agencies to ignore this growing danger. It’s particularly disappointing to see The Looming Tower reproduce the same stale gender dynamics that went unquestioned for too long in so many “golden age” prestige dramas (cough, Breaking Bad, cough). Real heroes, the series implies, are men with balls, dudes who affectionately say things like “suck me” in professional phone calls or, like O’Neill, jovially break protocol to pursue what they know is right and also cheat on their wives — men who do things their way, propriety be damned.

Early in the pilot, the FBI agents comment on Martin Schmidt’s peculiar (is it, though?) penchant for hiring exclusively young women to work in his department: “It is weird that it’s all women and one bearded guy, right?” one jokes in a meeting. If only the show went deeper into the thought that Americans and our perceived enemies have more in common than we think.

The Looming Tower premieres on Hulu on February 28.