Hulu’s ‘Looming Tower’ has clear political message on world after 9/11

The first few episodes of the Hulu TV 10-part miniseries “The Looming Tower” are now streaming, and the show has a clear message for any Americans who want to listen: Divided we fall.

The series, based on the Pulitzer-winning 2006 book by Austin author and New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright, looks at how the U.S. intelligence community failed in the years leading up to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 – and in particular at the lack of cooperation between the FBI and the CIA.

The first episode of the series was screened for an Austin audience last week at the LBJ Library and Museum, with Wright, former FBI agent Ali Soufan and actor Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Richard Clarke, the former chief counterterrorism adviser on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, in attendance. Former LBJ Library director Mark Updegrove hosted a discussion after the screening.

The series revolves around John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels), the gruff chief of an FBI squad that’s convinced that America has been targeted for an attack by al-Qaida. But he and his assistant, Muslim-American FBI agent Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim), are unable to get information from the CIA that would help them foil such an attack.

At the CIA, counterterrorism leader Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard) knows that two members of al-Qaida have entered the United States, but he withholds that information from the FBI, despite repeated requests for sharing. He apparently fears that the FBI will arrest the al-Qaida members and foil whatever undercover operation the CIA was planning.

The Schmidt character is a composite, representing several people at the CIA, but he’s a thinly disguised version of Michael Scheuer, the director of the agency’s Alec Station counterterrorism unit.

It’s important to note that the CIA refused numerous requests from Wright to discuss the agency’s reasoning for withholding information from the FBI. But it’s also important to note that many of Wright’s conclusions in his much more comprehensive book have been backed up by revelations since publication.

“For most Americans, 9/11 came out of the blue,” Wright says. “Yet we had been under attack since 1998, with the U.S. Embassy bombings” in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people, with about 150 more people blinded by flying glass.

“Just look at the massive amount of grief that was caused, and it made little impression in the U.S.,” Wright says. “And in October of 2000, there was the U.S.S. Cole bombing in Yemen, and 19 American sailors were killed. That was right in the middle of the presidential campaign, and not a single question about terrorism was posed in the presidential debates. It was not on people’s minds.”

Wright wryly notes that “The Looming Tower” miniseries doesn’t “have a surprise ending.”

But he adds, “We’re trying to explain why it went the direction it did and the moments when things might have turned out differently.”

“For me, the lesson of this series is that divided we fall,” Wright says. “The intelligence community was divided against itself, and the result was that the 9/11 plot was allowed to proceed. We might be living in a different world right now. We might not be in two wars. We might not be living in a security state that we’ve built up around ourselves.”

Then he adds: “Think of all the ways in which the lives of Americans and the lives of people around the world have changed because of this. … Divisions in our country politically are at a historic high, and the calumny that’s directed at the intelligence community is increasing that division. The lesson from 9/11 is that division is dangerous. It imperils us and keeps us distracted, very much in the same way that the country was distracted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal (during the Clinton administration). Our mind is far, far away from the real dangers that face us now, and we’re hampering our intelligence agencies by giving them a blackened name.”

If all of this sounds like a policy debate that has been turned into a TV miniseries, that would be a mistake.

Rather, “The Looming Tower” miniseries is a thrilling tale of inevitable dread, with flawed characters making numerous mistakes.

Of all the characters in the sprawling miniseries, which was shot in locations around the world, the two who stand out are the hard-charging FBI agent O’Neill and his brilliant assistant Soufan.

As you might expect, Daniels brings O’Neill to life in a way that’s rather surprising, especially with his sexual escapades and his foul mouth.

As Soufan, Rahim is just as mesmerizing, but in a much quieter way. Audiences are probably unfamiliar with Rahim’s career, but he was the star of 2009’s “A Prophet,” a French film that was nominated for a best foreign-language Oscar in 2010.

Wright and his partners, which include veteran Hollywood producer/director Alex Gibney, hired Dan Futterman to be the miniseries showrunner. And Futterman has plenty of credits to his name, including Oscar nominations for screenplays for “Capote” and “Foxcatcher.”

Wright says he felt a sense of urgency in bringing the story to the big screen, in part because he felt someone else might do it and mess it up if he didn’t.

He and his partners shopped the series around Hollywood, and he says they were treated well by the studios, but they got a quick offer from Hulu to develop an original TV miniseries. “And that was before Hulu was as well known as it is today after the success of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’” he says.

Wright says he’s not at liberty to divulge details of the cost of making the series, which has an expensive look and a sprawling list of actors, crew members and shooting locations around the world. But it’s clear that Hulu is betting big on the series. If you tune in, you’ll see why. New episodes begin streaming on Wednesdays.

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