“First actions often set the course of future events.” —Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006)
When Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard), the former chief of the CIA’s “Alec Station”—which trailed Osama bin Laden and his network of extremists from 1996 to 2005—comes before the committee, he has the bit between his teeth. In “Mistakes Were Made,” the third episode of Hulu’s trenchant new series The Looming Tower, Schmidt offers no apologies for the decision to treat the simultaneous 1998 bombings at U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania as an act of war, though the fact that the issue arises at all is at the heart of the drama’s effectiveness. As the congressman questioning Schmidt in 2004 says, the benefit of hindsight bleeding through his half-polite elocution, “The American government had two paths open following the embassy bombings”—on the one hand, to capture and prosecute the attackers as criminals, under the aegis of the FBI; on the other, to treat them as combatants from a hostile nation, subject to the might of the U.S. military and the CIA. It’s to such points of divergence that The Looming Tower is most keenly attuned, scything through the clutter of tropes to emerge from film and TV’s treatment of the “War on Terror” to unearth a truth that others lost in the fog of war: That 9/11 and its long aftermath are milestones in stories of choice, not chance, that on the roads not taken we might have written a different ending.
Adapted from Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower—from executive producers Dan Futterman, Alex Gibney, Craig Zisk, and Wright—dispenses with the most common structure for on-screen depictions of the conflict, which is to begin, à la Zero Dark Thirty’s excruciating audio, with the events of Sept. 11, 2001, or to focus, as with intelligence analyst Carrie Mathison, in Showtime’s Homeland, on life après le deluge. (Full disclosure: My predecessor, former Paste TV editor Shannon M. Houston, is a staff writer on The Looming Tower.) In situating 9/11 at the end of the narrative, The Looming Tower forgoes the suspense of the ticking clock or the burning fuse (cf. 24) in favor of a subtler tension, pitting the viewer’s omniscience against the characters’ innocence. Of course, Schmidt and his FBI rival, John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels)—one professorial, the other bombastic; one humorless, the other charming—share the conviction, at that point uncommon in intelligence and law enforcement circles, that bin Laden poses a significant threat to U.S. interests. Still, neither can foresee the twin-towered shape of his failure, which becomes instrumental to the series’ action: On the airport tarmac in Tirana, Albania or an encampment in the Hindu Kush, in London mosques, New York restaurants, and Washington offices, The Looming Tower thrillingly inverts the conventions of the counterterrorism thriller. In a sense, there is no attack to prevent, because it’s already happened; there is no connection to draw, because it’s already missed.
The result, though it so telescopes Wright’s reporting that the series covers perhaps one-fourth of the text—largely excising The New Yorker correspondent’s thorough discussion of al-Qaeda’s origins—is a crisp, sober, and admittedly U.S.-centric rendering of those forking paths the congressman mentions; its animating force is absence, not presence, fueled by every shiver of recognition that those responsible for our protection have taken another wrong turn. If Schmidt and O’Neill’s personal contrasts suggest a blunt instrument—I rolled my eyes at the sight of the latter romancing one of his three love interests to the sounds of Tosca, while the former scarcely seems to leave his office—their professional ones sustain a feud worthy of Ryan Murphy, refereed by the always game Michael Stuhlbarg as Clinton’s counterterrorism czar, Richard Clarke. It’s here that The Looming Tower, following Wright’s lead, casts its most unsettling through line: At least as much as the planning undertaken by bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri, it’s the CIA/FBI turf war, replete with preening egos, withheld intelligence, strategic miscalculations, and (most entertainingly) florid vulgarities, which sets the U.S. on its tragic course. Even Clarke fails to see the forest for the trees. “This is not a war,” he says to O’Neill in “Mistakes Were Made,” before missiles rain down like shooting stars on an Afghan settlement, “al-Qaeda can win.”
What lifts this from intellectual exercise to engaging drama, at least in the three episodes made available to critics, are the efforts of O’Neill’s team—in particular Robert Chesney (Bill Camp), desperate to find a friend in the Nairobi rubble, and Ali Soufan (series standout Tahar Rahim), the Muslim Lebanese American most responsible for the series’ human touch. As played by Rahim, Soufan, escaping arrest on assignment in Albania or warily eyeing an officer of New Scotland Yard, oozes such decent, cool competence it becomes a form of charisma, to the point that he, and not Daniels, is our entree to seeing the FBI as Wright does—an imperfect institution that nonetheless established a model for prosecuting terrorists, which U.S. officials, so easily swayed by the excitement of tradecraft or the machismo of force, ignored at their own peril. This, to my mind, is the meaning of al-Zawahiri’s veiled threat before the embassy bombings, delivered via video near the end of the pilot: He promises a message “written in a language you can understand,” which in America is not English but violence.
In disrupting the conventions of the counterterrorism drama, then—the narrative structure, the hard-charging hero, the constant sense of panic—The Looming Tower goes back to basics; it is, like O’Neill’s staff, careful and competent, if sometimes hamstrung by circumstance. Most of all, though, it is pungently, horrifyingly alive to the roads not taken, the paths not pursued, to the cascade of decisions we might trace from first actions to future events. To treat 9/11 as an accident of history, an act of war absent context, has been, in politics as in popular culture, the most damaging consequence of the urge to commemorate it, the one that continues to propel us into the blunders of a collapsing empire, and The Looming Tower, imperfect though it may be, is a vital corrective. For all its relative sedateness, after all, the series’ most lacerating edge might be its existence: The conflict we’re in is so interminable it’s become the subject of a period piece. In a sense, there is no war left to win, because it’s already so long lost.
The first three episodes of The Looming Tower are now streaming on Hulu.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.