By: Aidan Clarke, Contributor
The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks were a profound tragedy and remain a definitive moment in the history of the United States. Perhaps because the events were so traumatic, and because the wounds they opened are still raw, few have attempted to tell the story of the many failures that led to that horrific day. That story, one of bureaucratic infighting and stubborn parochialism, of good intentions and political maneuvering, is the subject of Hulu’s 10 episode miniseries, “The Looming Tower.”
“The Looming Tower” is based on the book of the same title by journalist and author Lawrence Wright. Wright’s book traces the rise of al-Qaeda all the way back to the birth of fundamentalist Islam in the 1950’s. Aside from the official 9/11 Commission Report, is perhaps the single definitive account of how and why the 9/11 attacks occured. The show’s scope is less expansive, beginning instead with the start of America’s fight against al-Qaeda in 1998. I read the book before I watched the series, and while I felt it added a great deal to the experience, the viewer will be able to follow along perfectly without reading it.
“The Looming Tower” follows the efforts of John O’Neill (played by Jeff Daniels), FBI Special Agent in Charge, National Security Division, as he attempts to discover al-Qaeda’s plots to attack the United States, and to convince his coworkers and superiors in the FBI, in the CIA, and in the White House, that al-Qaeda poses a real and imminent threat. Consistently he meets opposition from within the CIA’s al-Qaeda Issue Station, led by Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard). While Schmidt is a composite, O’Neill, and his partner Ali Soufan, were real people, and their struggle against bureaucratic roadblocks and political infighting is tragically real as well.
John O’Neill is perhaps the most complicated person I have ever read about, yet Jeff Daniels was outstanding in capturing the myriad of elements that made up John O’Neill. O’Neill was a deeply flawed man, but he was dedicated to serving his country. In his final moments, John O’Neill was at his best, and “The Looming Tower” is a fitting place for his memory to live on.
The power of the show is that it purely depicts the truth of events leading up to Sept. 11. There is no attempt to lionize O’Neill or vilify the CIA, no attempt to thatricalize the attacks or embellish the power of al-Qaeda. Instead you get a look at the simple reality of human beings: we make mistakes. The FBI and the CIA agreed that there was a threat, but they disagreed on methods. In the end, their personal rivalry and bureaucratic pettiness led to a disastrous failure. Telling that story is powerful enough.
“The Looming Tower” also reminds viewers of the costs of partisan politics. As Republicans and Democrats tore at each other’s throats over the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the 2000 Presidential election, our enemies grew stronger. While we watched the Gore vs Bush debates and bickered for political points, we ignored critical events around the world. As our politicians took the convenient choices to appease their partisan bases, they paved the road for al-Qaeda to permanently change the future of our nation.