'The Looming Tower': TV Review

A gripping horror story of historic inevitability.

Hulu's limited series features a cast of superb actors including Jeff Daniels, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg and Tahar Rahim as the men who tried and failed to prevent 9/11.

Having finally established its prestige series credentials with the award-winning The Handmaid's Tale, Hulu is getting in on the competitive limited series action with The Looming Tower.

Through the first three of its 10 hours, this adaptation of Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer-winning book is the sort of slice of history that one used to find on HBO: sturdy, serious and star-studded.

The Looming Tower begins in 1998 and, as conceived by Wright and co-creators Dan Futterman (Capote) and prolific Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, it's a horror story of inevitability as dueling teams of FBI and CIA operatives begin to recognize the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida and, through interdepartmental bickering, lack of information-sharing, poor management of egos and sheer misfortune, stumble right up to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. In a gesture of admirable restraint, pilot director Gibney holds off until the end of that episode before showing us the pre-9/11 New York City skyline, but the ghost of the World Trade Center haunts the entire miniseries.

The source material provides an ensemble of flawed heroes — brilliant men whose difficulties with teamwork or refusal to set bureaucratic agendas aside yielded a Greek tragedy of cautious Cassandras, each ignoring the other in a cacophony of insufficiently heeded warnings. On the FBI side, we have frequently flustered John O'Neill (Jeff Daniels), Lebanese immigrant Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim) and weary veteran Robert Chesney (Bill Camp). Supercilious Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard) leads the CIA team, a cultish group of younger women in his thrall, including Diane Priest (Wrenn Schmidt). Attempting to make sense of the information funneled to them, as disasters like the embassy bombing in Nairobi begin to pile up, are national figures such as Richard Clarke (Michael Stuhlbarg) and, if you stick around a couple episodes, Alec Baldwin as former CIA director George Tenet.

In a cast of big names, Daniels and Sarsgaard are the biggest and both have parts that play directly to their strengths. Daniels gives O'Neill a bloviating bluster that undermines the understandable concerns, while Sarsgaard's Schmidt is instantly reptilian and obstructionist, so it's all the more unnerving when he makes perceptive points. The series' most consistently dynamic and empathetic character is Ali Soufan, a Muslim rebelling against both his upbringing and the intensifying scapegoating of his entire religion. Best known as the lead in Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, Rahim makes Soufan the figure you want spotlighted most — an impressive feat when you have high-profile scene-stealers like Baldwin or Stuhlbarg around.

The Looming Tower comes together quickly as an ensemble, and there really isn't the feeling that anybody is bucking for Emmys or critical attention. The downside there is that this review can't tell you, "Oh, you've got to check out the spectacular performance by [insert your favorite actor]," but I think I appreciate that this is a story about men just trying to do their jobs and, too often, trying to upstage each other, told with a cast of reputable actors trying to do their jobs without upstaging each other.

Perhaps sensing that the ensemble is overwhelmingly testosterone-driven, Futterman has built in romantic arcs for several characters, which may pay dividends in terms of long-term emotion, but register as rather rote "difficult men" arcs early on; for now, all of the practically nameless wives, girlfriends and mistresses play as composites or pure projections to flesh out the men. O'Neill's marital infidelities are a major character detail and having Law & Order veteran Annie Parisse playing one of those foils really gives that some life — which can't be said for the thinly drawn love interests for Ali (Ella Rae Peck's winsome Heather) and, especially, Camp's Robert. Schmidt and Virginia Kull, superb in Futterman's Fox drama Gracepoint and fine here as a part of the FBI team, have the closest to fully realized female roles and they're decidedly third- or fourth-tier figures in this drama.

Futterman is slightly more successful in giving voices to a few of the characters in the al-Qaida sphere, not necessarily fully humanizing them, but at least giving them some context. That context is the most interesting part of The Looming Tower. The usual reason networks are loading up on miniseries about crimes from the 1990s — think Waco, both American Crime Story seasons, USA's upcoming Tupac/Biggie mini and more — is that distance from the events allows for clarity. In this case, 9/11 was a disaster that bred instant "Us vs. Them" clarity and here, the distance from the events allows Futterman and Gibney to show how fragmented the "Us" actually was. Gibney is still in his nascent days as a narrative director after doing an episode of Showtime's Billions last year, but you'd never know it from the admirable balancing act of the premiere here.

The Looming Tower demands a hasty combination of faith in the storytellers and half-forgotten knowledge of the history. Absent that, the series is essentially like a well-shot, brilliantly cast, fast-moving season of Homeland, which is better than the actual current season of Homeland.

Cast: Jeff Daniels, Peter Sarsgaard, Tahar Rahim, Bill Camp, Wrenn Schmidt, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sullivan Jones, Virginia Kull, Louis Cancelmi
Developed by: Dan Futterman, Alex Gibney, Lawrence Wright
Showrunner: Dan Futterman
Premieres: Wednesday, Feb. 28 (Hulu)