'The Looming Tower' Cast Brings 9/11 Series to Washington, D.C.

Washington egos ultimately contributed to the tragedy of 9/11. That’s a theory posited by Hulu’s new series The Looming Tower, which is based on the Pulitzer-winning book of the same name by acclaimed journalist and screenwriter Lawrence Wright.

The stars of The Looming Tower, along with Wright and executive producer Dan Futterman, arrived in Washington this week for an advance screening at The Washington Post, where they were joined by the real Ali Soufan (portrayed by Tahar Rahim on the series) for a post-screening panel discussion. How they went about presenting an authentic yet dramatic story provided a crash course in how the U.S. government handles counterterrorism within and among its agencies. “Working with these guys was like being in a very intense seminar with very strict professors,” Futterman tells The Hollywood Reporter.

In his book, Wright rewinds history to examine the inner workings of the country's counterterrorism agencies during the years leading up to the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. The limited series, which begins four years ahead of the attack, has plenty of references to the Clinton era and the Monica Lewinsky scandal to help set the cultural timeline. The 10-episode event launches on Hulu with the first three episodes streaming Feb. 28 and the remainder rolling out weekly.

The story follows a handful of counterterrorism agents in the FBI and CIA who had been tracking al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden’s rise to power. Jeff Daniels plays FBI counterterrorism agent John O’Neill, a flawed but passionate good guy who is “desperately trying to stop something big  — he’s not sure what,” the actor tells THR. “He’s all street and no polish, a bull in a china shop who came down to Washington and just started knocking things off desks — abrasive, short fuse, womanizer, searching for something but doesn’t know what it is.”

By his side is agent Ali Soufan (Rahim), a Lebanese-American who is given the side-eye every time he’s introduced to a new character, and who ends up being perhaps the story’s only straightforward hero and vehicle for illuminating the country’s inherent bias against Muslims.

The two struggle to extract essential counterterrorism information from the CIA's smug and superior Martin Schmidt, played by Peter Sarsgaard, and his protege Diane Marsh, played by Wrenn Schmidt. "The burden of being the genius who knows he’s the brightest person in the room is that he doesn’t trust anyone else," says Sarsgaard of his character, who refuses to share essential information with his FBI counterparts — like the knowledge that two al-Qaeda operatives who would become 9/11 hijackers were living in the U.S. — intelligence that might have enabled the FBI to thwart an attack. 

“I’m really proud to be a part of something that raises questions that need to be heard,” says Sarsgaard, although clearly not everyone in Washington wants those questions raised, as the CIA flatly refused to cooperate with the show’s writers or even answer questions.

In piecing together the original narrative, Wright drew on stories of both former government agents and terrorists in order to paint a picture from all sides.

“These are all human beings — in the FBI, CIA and yes, even members of al-Qaeda — and there are unintended consequences of how people react to the decisions [that were made]," he says. "We wanted to touch on the humanization, but also on the idea of: How does someone become radicalized?” In one particularly poignant episode, written by Bathsheba Doran, young boys play soccer at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan while their elders meet to discuss ways to inflict retribution on Americans, and the audience sees firsthand the seeds of radicalization.

When asked about the show’s parallels to our current state of government, Daniels quotes Soufan: “He said, ‘Divided, we fail.’ And we’re more divided now than ever. Leading up to 9/11, our government was staffed with brilliant, knowledgeable, experienced people — all of whom thought they were right. But these were the best of the best. We had experts in their field, and still 9/11 happened. Do we have experts in our field now? In all these departments? In the White House? I said 'brilliant, knowledgeable and experienced,'” the actor adds, counting them out on his fingers. “Might want to take 'brilliant' out, probably 'knowledgeable' — that needs to come out, and 'experienced'? Some have some experience, and some are rank amateurs. How we doing?”

Sarsgaard sees some pointed parallels between Hollywood and Washington. "People get very attached to their point of view and protective of their information and distrustful of one another,” he says. “I think of Hollywood as being a very ego-driven business and I’ve certainly worked with a lot of big egos, but I’ve done a number of projects set in the world of Washington politics, and Washington definitely gives Hollywood a run for its money. You see the way it’s very difficult to be shaken from your point of view once it’s established."

Says Wright, "The sense of division that we feel now is certainly a theme that I think makes this series resonant in our time. The consequences of our division were so obvious in 9/11 — it might give us a chance to reflect on what might happen to us if we keep going in this same kind of state."

Hulu's The Looming Tower launches Feb. 28.