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'The Looming Tower': Drama About 9/11 Lead-Up Part Nostalgia, Part Cautionary Tale

Hulu's miniseries on the intelligence infighting, communication breakdown and terrorist networking that led to 9/11 is a first-rate procedural

Rob Sheffield on how Hulu's 'The Looming Tower' is pre-millennial nostalgia, a pre-9/11 procedural and a sobering cautionary tale. Our review. Credit: JoJo Whilden/Hulu

There's a haunting moment early on in Hulu's The Looming Tower – just another night in New York City, back in 1998. An FBI Special Agent watches a TV interview with a terrorist practically nobody in America has heard of before, a guy named Osama bin Laden. The interview includes dire threats of attacks on America. The agent, John O'Neill, reacts to this news in the time-honored way: He goes out and gets drunk, at the old-school celebrity hot spot Elaine's. (He's a regular.) On the way out, he yells into his cell phone: "We just got warned by Al-Qaeda on national TV and our [security] director slept through it!" Behind him, the World Trade Center towers sparkle on the skyline, such a familiar sight in '98 that hardly anyone noticed they were there. Three years later, the towers will fall – and O'Neill will go down with them, killed in the north tower on 9/11.

The Looming Tower is the streaming service's excellent new drama on how the U.S. military and intelligence establishment failed to see these attacks coming. It's a tense flashback procedural where relations between the FBI and the CIA have degenerated into open warfare, muscling into each others' way as they pursue rival counter-terrorist investigations. They're too busy rumbling over turf to get anywhere chasing Osama bin Laden, at a time when most of the country would have guessed Al-Qaeda was some junior member of the Wu-Tang Clan. And it's based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Lawrence Wright, whose Scientology expose Going Clear was a strong contender for the must-see TV moment of 2015, courtesy of Alex Gibney's deep-dive HBO documentary. (Going Clear's Alex Gibney also directed Looming's first episode.)

Jeff Daniels stands front and center here as O'Neill, the FBI agent who spent the Nineties on bin Laden's trail, after the original 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Tired of all the federal infighting, he quit in 2001 to move into the private sector, as the WTC's head of security; he started his new gig just a couple of weeks before 9/11. He's a hard-partying blowhard who lives it up on the job, reasoning, "It's all work whether you get drunk doing it or not." Peter Sarsgaard is superbly slimy as his CIA nemesis Martin Schmidt, rocking a ridiculously Eighties beard and wire-frame spectacles as he hunts the same terrorists. But he doesn't share his intel with the domestic law-enforcement guys, seeing the FBI as bumbling amateurs who can only get in his way. The show sets Sarsgaard up as the villain, pitting his beady-eyed intensity against Daniels' boozy cockiness, but he really does blow everybody else off the screen. The premise is that 9/11 could have been prevented if only the CIA and FBI dudes went out for brewskis together; their mutual loathing helped set the stage for the United States' disastrous Iraq and Afghanistan wars along with the equally disastrous Patriot Act.

The 10-episode series has a stellar supporting cast, from Alec Baldwin (in Jack Donaghy mode as the CIA director George Tenet) to the ubiquitous Michael Stuhlbarg, fresh from playing the dad in Call Me By Your Name, as former anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke. But the action depends on the unlikely presence of Daniels, who's found a surprising second life on prestige TV vehicles like The Newsroom and Godless. As a young movie star in the Eighties, Daniels' specialty was smarmy lightweights coasting through life despite the disdain of everyone around them. He was a guy you could always count on to play the less-intelligent half of a buddy-cop duo – even when the other half was Keanu. (Not many actors made such convincing morons you could cast them to cheat on Debra Winger.) Yet Daniels has snagged a strange middle-aged niche playing hyper-confident tough guys who are somehow irresistible to the ladies, even though his default conversational mode is the self-righteous table-pounding tirade. It's safe to say he's one of the last actors anybody thought would end up a professional Last Honest Man, but there we are.

In so many ways, The Looming Tower is most affecting as a portrait of America in the Nineties. It's a more innocent time – as one character sneers, "All anyone wants to hear about is Monica's cum-stained dress." These characters take the Clinton era's peace and prosperity for granted, no matter how tuned in they are to terrorist threats. Nobody really has any idea of the extent to which the new millennium is coming for their scalp. 

At one point, a CIA agent rants, "Every single day is a real live battle between our country and her many devious and far less tasteful enemies." This must have seemed like crazy talk in 1998, when the Cold War was over. Foreign policy looked like a relic of the Eighties, like leg warmers or cassingles. Russia was seen affectionately as a befuddled lunk of a nation, lumbering around in a Yeltsin-esque vodka haze. America saw itself as an empire that had outlived our foes – instead of wasting our minds and money on the arms race, we could now finally get down to fixing some of our domestic problems. Just a few years after 1998, this moment would look like a sadly squandered opportunity. And part of the poignance of The Looming Tower is that this America is gone for good.