“The Looming Tower” (Hulu)

“The Looming Tower” (Hulu)
Created by Dan Futterman, Alex Gibney & Lawrence Wright

Jeff Daniels and Ali Suliman

In the almost twenty years(!) since the 9/11 tragedy, there has been a dearth of quality, non-fictional productions about the before or during. On the other hand, almost everything produced since that day is seen through the prism of post-9/11 national depression. This lack of content is not surprising given the sheer volume of imagery and oral history we’ve been inundated with in documentaries and, of course, in our memories…the ease with which we recall thrusting us back to that awful, awful day. Other than the terrific “Rescue Me” (especially the episode revolving around the catastrophe’s fifth anniversary), every other attempt, it seems, has been mediocre and inconsequential at best, and downright offensive at worst.

Well, now we have something substantial, something with a real narrative, and something that keeps you invested, even though you know how it all ends. And while Hulu’s “The Looming Tower,” based on Lawrence Wright’s non-fictional account of the events and circumstances leading to 9/11, is not perfect by any stretch, it is utterly respectful of our feelings surrounding that day…and contains a balance of emotional weight, highest of high stakes, well-written procedural attributes, and a welcome lack of jingoistic bullshit.

SIDE NOTE: One of the more recent tendencies, due, no doubt, to the plethora of limited series and mini-series, is the rise of the television director as auteur. In the past, the idea was to keep a series, of any length, consistent throughout, no matter who the director was. But now, you can often pick out who directed an episode of, say, “Westworld” simply by its look and feel. As an example of this disparity, check out the difference between the HBO tentpole’s two most recent episodes. Episode 8 (“Kiksuya” directed by Uta Briesewitz), is a beautiful, and brilliantly focused oral history. Even when it does stray from its main POV, it remains connected and nothing is over- (or under-) utilized. Episode 9 (“Vanishing Point”), directed by Stephen Williams, on the other hand, at times ventures so far afield from its main thrust, that it’s as if those scenes (important as they are) are throw-aways – separate from the flashback story-line. The music becomes more intrusive, the scene shifts seem like they call for a commercial break, if there were such a thing. Now, I have nothing against Mr. Williams, and you may have loved that episode, but there can be no doubt that his background as a producer, versus Ms. Briesewitz’ long-time work as a television cinematographer, played a large part in the disparity – a disparity you  can’t help but notice.

ALL of which is a long-winded way of saying “The Looming Tower” suffers none of this disparity. It seems like a really well-fused production front to back – even though it has just as many characters, points of view, and locales to maintain. I assume this comes down to the tight scripts (and tight control) of show-runners Futterman, Gibney Wright. And perhaps equally important, allowing Craig Zisk the luxury of directing three episodes in a row…the last three. It is this consistency that is most responsible for bringing all these stories to a successful, and inevitable, close.

Ella Rae Peck and Tahar Rahim

The acting is truly all over the place…from brilliant, to adequate, to downright ridiculous. Of the former, we have Jeff Daniels. More vulnerable in front of the camera than we’ve ever seen him, I think he gives a better performance here than in “Godless”, even if it is the less heralded effort. OUr young FBI agent, played by Tahar Rahim, grounds the entire thing. He manages to straddle both worlds, the smartest man in the room who never loses his sense of naivety, passion and wonder. It’s a tour de force performance and I look forward to seeing him more. Of course, Bill Camp, the irascible detective from “The Night Of…,” easily gives the most real performance of the bunch. His world-weariness is what gives us our human and emotional connection to the non- 9/11 events that we’ve come to think of as American historical nostalgia…news stories of the “where-were-you-when” variety. Annie Parisse and Ella Rae Pack are both terrific, as well.

There are a number of sensational Arab performers. Especially Ali Suliman, as the Yemeni General, Qamish. Zafar El-Abedin is simply terrifying as Egyptian WTC terrorist, Mohammad Atta. And without the presence of child actor, Mohammad Ashraf, who is brilliant, we might possibly lose sight of the show’s overarching message ideological warfare. But maybe the best scene of the entire show takes place between Rahim and Zaki Youssef as Bin-Laden’s bodyguard, Abu Jandal. Note perfect.

On the other end of the spectrum, I truly have no idea what the hell Peter Sarsgaard was thinking when he decided it would be cool to impersonate all the least attractive aspects of John Malkovich’s early-career idiosyncrasies. It’s so distracting, and frankly really hurts the show’s ability to make its very specific inter-departmental point-of-view subtle. Quite the opposite, it smacks you on the head with a ball-peen hammer. Wrenn Schmidt, while less specifically indicative, makes no less perplexing a choice for her character’s organizing principles. Truly bizarre. And winner of the Strangest Character Choice Award goes to Alec Baldwin’ for his protrayal of George Tenet – ESPECIALLY since video of the real Tenet is used at one point. It’s shake-your-head strange.

But most of the performances fall somewhere in the middle – or are directed very, very oddly. Michael Stuhlbarg, who you all know I think is one of our greatest actors, manages to convey the emotions of Richard Clarke, even as he seems to have been forced to focus on some very odd idiosyncratic ticks. And, listen, while I haven’t seen him in forever, I count the brilliant Yul Vazquez as an old friend. Alas, he too has been directed to play his important role as New York FBI director, Jason Sanchez, as absurdly unresponsive. It’s far too two-dimensional for Yul to have made these choices on his own.

But in spite of these bizarro (some terrible) performances, it manages to move at a terrific pace. I guess the best thing I can say about it is that as it careens toward the final episode, and while you desperately hope for a different ending, you can’t stop watching.

Finally, kudos to Will Bates who has scored the series with restraint, tension and a hidden quality. It’s becoming his hallmark…quiet restraint. Check out the 2010 Korean War doc, “Chosin,” for more of his exceptional work.

I suppose seventeen years was finally long enough for someone to produce a version of the story that was worth watching; respectful, non-sensationalist, and appropriately solemn. I don’t know if this is the best thing I’ve seen on TV, but as thoughtful and mesmerizing as it ultimately is, it’s the best thing on TV about the pre-9/11 world since…uh…9/11. Well worth your time.

[Not sure how I feel about this trailer…doesn’t have much to do with the show I saw…so, as ever, watch at your own risk – and ignore it if it turns you off from watching]

Written on 6/20/2018

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