‘The Looming Tower’ Travels Through the Dark History That Lead to 9/11

The shadowy underworld of counterintelligence and terrorism which paved the way for the attacks of September 11, 2001 is explored with fascinating detail in Hulu’s “The Looming Tower.” Behind all history is a cast of lives, obsessions and driven purposes. This is a dramatic attempt at capturing the lives involved in the secret history behind major events. Produced with the pilot directed by master documentarian Alex Gibney, the series is designed with an astounding attention to detail and authenticity, in essence becoming the ultimate thriller because it isn’t based on fiction. The bureaucracy of government and the netherworld of radical militants come into clear, disturbing focus.

The series opens in 1998 as the FBI and CIA begin monitoring emerging Islamist movements in the Middle East. The main focus is on an emerging group, Al Qaeda, headed by Osama Bin Laden. John O’Neil (Jeff Daniels) is in charge of an FBI squad, I-49, based in New York, who along with agents Robert Chesney (Bill Camp) and Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim) begin monitoring information related to Bin Laden’s movement and transmissions that hint at something big being planned. But they have to deal with the CIA, here represented by a team lead by Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard), who doesn’t hide his resentment of O’Neil and refuses to share information. But as the bureaucratic stand-offs continue, militants loyal to Bin Laden are already planning attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, which will be part of the first clarion calls in their mission to wage religious war against what they see as foreign, western meddling in the Middle East.

“The Looming Tower” immediately places itself above recent dramatizations of recent history by combining a keen sense of information with a sharp, cinematic style. It can work as a fascinating study in the workings of the intelligence world, and as an engrossing thriller that would make John le Carré proud. The source material is a book of the same name by Lawrence Wright (who is also a producer here), and it brilliantly takes all of the information and facts of the book to weave a riveting narrative. There is no better word to describe this series than fascinating. We are taken into the nitty gritty of intelligence work as O’Neil and his team interpret comments, translate coded lingo and debate over decisions where the stakes are incredibly high. One wrong move and you might catch the wrong person, or miss the signs of an impending attack.

The worlds of the FBI and CIA are contrasted with the world of underground militants. The Americans sit in offices or carry out raids attempting to comprehend men we see in hideouts, acquiring funds and moving with total zeal (in one scene on an airplane a militant quickly shifts his gaze away from the legs of a stewardess). It becomes clear that 9/11 would eventually be the horrendous result of geopolitics clashing with extreme ideologies. The writing is intelligent and doesn’t portray Al Qaeda or Bin Laden as some purely faceless, spontaneous menace, but as a dark outgrowth of many factors. Unlike some of the recent, gung-ho movies like “12 Strong,” this show actually cares about understanding why 9/11 happened and what the key players believed. In the pilot episode real footage of Bin Laden is used and Gibney lets him simply speak and articulate his aims. It isn’t about making excuses for the man, but about exploring through drama why history takes certain turns, and why men are driven to commit acts of fanaticism. It is also refreshing to see a thriller that is serious about understanding the region’s labyrinthine of politics. The dialogue crackles as some officials immediately suspect the Lebanese Hezbollah of carrying out the African embassy attacks, only for Ali to explain with precision the difference between Al Qaeda’s extremists and other groups.

Yet the show doesn’t romanticize the world of counterintelligence. It feels engaging because the characters, based on actual people, are oh so human and flawed. Deception is all around the world these individuals inhabit. O’Neil is dogged and a presence, never relenting in his effort to warn his superiors that something they don’t seem to comprehend is taking shape in the Afghan frontier. He seems happy in his marriage to a professor, only to then visit a mistress. Not everything is as it seems. Other characters such as National Security Coordinator Richard Clarke (Michael Stuhlbarg), exhume authority and intelligence, but still seem clueless about the rise of a nontraditional enemy. Sarsgaard is the perfect, proud ego who thinks he knows better but is forced by events to shift his posture.

But “The Looming Tower” is not all men in suits. This is an immersive international story with kidnappings, intense interrogations and shootouts in places as far flung as Tirana, Albania. But what makes it different is that it isn’t bombastic or exploitative, the violence is raw yet tempered by a dedication to presenting these events as close to reality as possible. It’s a show that knows the world of terrorism and espionage has little to do with macho heroics.

“The Looming Tower” is one of the first major series to tackle the history behind September 11 in a sober, intelligent manner. It is absolutely engaging as a work of drama, but it is also part of our cultural reckoning through popular entertainment with the ghosts haunting us still.

The Looming Tower” unveils its first three episodes Feb. 28 on Hulu with new episodes airing on Wednesdays.