In a world where people say present-day politics are far more intense than any drama, The Looming Tower is breaking that stigma. Hulu’s miniseries is a dramatic retelling of the information war between the FBI and CIA in the late 1990s and early 2000s which unwittingly led to the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The miniseries has quietly become the best political drama on television right now for many reasons, and halfway through the series’ run, it isn’t hard to see why.
A lot of The Looming Tower‘s appeal is in its story, which focuses on key real-life individuals who worked with the FBI I-49 Squad in New York and the CIA’s Alec Station in Washington D.C. pre-9/11. Both intelligence agencies were tasked with keeping track of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda organization, both of which were quickly winning supporters in the Middle East. Both United States organizations were gaining ground and scoring some big wins against the terrorist organization, although an unwillingness to cooperate and share information with each other led to devastating attacks against Americans even beyond the events of 9/11.
The weight of this petty war between the FBI and CIA is definitely felt as The Looming Tower mixes its cinematic footage with actual footage from historical attacks linked to al-Qaeda. A politically savvy person of the 90s will undoubtedly remember some of the footage, but it becomes so much more powerful when one learns just how easily it could’ve been prevented. It’s meant to be intentionally frustrating to present-day viewers, many of whom likely still remember the events shown quite well, and it’s effective in making the viewer feel just how insanely simple yet complicated this situation with al-Qaeda was in hindsight.
The Looming Tower depicts this war of information between the FBI and CIA in many ways, and the dynamic between Jeff Daniels’ chief of FBI’s I-49 John O’Neill and Peter Sarsgaard’s chief of CIA’s Alec Station Martin Schmidt (based on CIA officer Michael Scheuer) is the epitome of this power struggle. Both Daniels and Sarsgaard do an excellent job at expressing their disdain for each other’s methods while at the same time come off as two men who adamantly believe that they’re doing the right thing. For Schmidt, that means keeping O’Neill and the rest of the FBI from rounding up key Al-Qaeda operatives so that they can continue surveillance and potentially eliminate Osama bin Laden. O’Neill, on the other hand, just wants CIA’s intel and will do whatever it takes to prevent an attack from happening on American soil.
While Jeff Daniels and Peter Sarsgaard are the shining veteran actors of The Looming Tower, French actor Tahar Rahim carries the emotional weight of the series with his role as the Lebanese-American FBI agent Ali Soufan. Soufan, who was one of the few Arabic speakers in the FBI’s employ at the time the series takes place, tells the sometimes overlooked story of the Muslim-American living in America. Soufan struggles with maintaining his cool while radical terrorists are using his religion to justify malicious acts as well as with a large intelligence community who appear largely ignorant of Muslim culture. Soufan’s disgust towards radical terrorists shows a representation of a Muslim-American post 9/11 that deserves to be shown more often.
The Looming Tower is politically heavy, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only drama this miniseries has up its sleeve. The show often steps away from its closed-door briefings and intelligence excursions abroad and shows the life of these people living and loving outside the walls of the FBI and CIA. It also shows the tremendous toll a job in the intelligence community can take on someone’s personal life, with plenty of focus on John O’Neill and Ali Soufan. Both men’s side stories are a nice break from the non-stop history lesson some political dramas fall victim to, and almost equally as intriguing as some of the shocking information some viewers may just now be learning for the first time while watching.
Ultimately, this is what makes The Looming Tower such great television. This miniseries is an accurate, informative, and somewhat shocking retelling of actual events in American history that’s as entertaining as it is jaw-dropping to those who couldn’t read through the transcripts of the 9/11 Commission Report. It’s digestible, easy to understand, and a series that hails from the author of the award-winning Looming Tower book, Lawrence Wright. Wright is joined by the real-life Ali Soufan, who is a living witness to some of the show’s more unbelievable moments. In addition to their research, development on the series included extensive interviews with former employees of both intelligence organizations, cross-referencing events portrayed with official documentation and other books with knowledge on the time period, and actors getting to know the lives of the real-world people they portray in the show. In summary, this series did its homework, and it really shows.
Credit is certainly due to the producers and everyone who was a part of this series thus far, but Hulu deserves a pat on the back for The Looming Tower as well. The streaming service’s willingness to see this project on its platform led them to grant a financial commitment higher than their competition and a promise that it would not cave to any pressure brought on by the FBI or CIA for this series. That’s certainly bold considering how the miniseries has portrayed both organizations thus far, which has been far from flattering as one would imagine.
The Looming Tower uploads new episodes on Hulu on Wednesdays and will conclude on April 4. For a look at other interesting shows coming to streaming in the near future on other platforms, visit our Netflix premiere guide and Amazon premiere guide. For a look at what’s coming to television in general in the near future, visit our midseason premiere guide. To discover which shows have been renewed and which have gotten the axe so far in the 2017-2018 TV season, check out our rundown of TV renewals and cancellations.