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Hulu’s The Looming Tower turns the buildup to 9/11 into a cop show

But this one scene shows why that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

The Looming Tower
Tahar Rahim and Jeff Daniels star in The Looming Tower.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The thing that makes Hulu’s The Looming Tower work is its TV-ness.

That feels like a weird way to talk about a docudrama miniseries depicting the failures of the American intelligence community to foresee the 9/11 terrorist attacks, one filled with sharp direction and strong performances, and based on a massively successful, award-winning book of the same name. But I came away from the first three episodes of the season (there will be 10 in total) struck by how carefully episodic they are, even as they combine to tell a larger story about arrogance, incompetence, and failure.

(I’ll briefly pause here to note that Looming Tower is a miniseries, but in the sense that something like Fargo or True Detective is. If Hulu picks up the series for future seasons, they will tell different stories about the US fight against terrorism, though only season one will be directly based on Lawrence Wright’s book.)

But it was somewhere in the middle of “Mistakes Were Made,” the show’s third episode, when one character interrogates a man connected to the 1998 bombing of the American Embassy in Kenya, that I felt a welcome sense of relief at both what the series was doing and how Dan Futterman (who adapted the book for TV) and his fellow writers had approached what might have seemed like an impossible adaptation choice.

The Looming Tower, despite its high stakes and its ostensibly true story (though many details have been changed), is a cop show. A really well-done cop show, admittedly, but a cop show. And more power to it.

How this one scene explains what works about the series

The Looming Tower
Bill Camp has a mustache!

The interrogator in the “Mistakes Were Made” scene in question is Robert Chesney, a composite character based on several real-life FBI agents in the New York counterterrorism unit. He’s played by the great character actor Bill Camp, a theater vet who’s made a real show of being the best thing about big ensemble pieces in recent years. (He was similarly brilliant as a rumpled detective in HBO’s The Night Of.)

The interrogation starts off awkwardly, as the suspect Chesney is interrogating dismisses one of Chesney’s female colleagues. (A subtle thread Looming Tower keeps tugging on is the blatant, violent sexism of al-Qaeda contrasted with the far more subtle forms of sexism in law enforcement.) But soon the two men start to open up to each other. Chesney talks about his time in the military, how much he loved getting to know the young men who were his compatriots, how he can imagine the same was true for the suspect when training at one of al-Qaeda’s camps. (Notably, the series does take us inside those camps, as well as within multiple investigations by US intelligence and assorted other intelligence agencies. It’s a big, sprawling show.)

But then Chesney zeroes in on the suspect in a way that twists the conversation so slowly toward accusation and ultimately confession that you almost don’t realize it’s happened. Why is there blood on the suspect’s hands but not on his clothes if he didn’t completely change his outfit? Why’s the price tag still on his belt? By the time Chesney is shouting and pounding on the table between the two men to extract viable intelligence (the phone number of an al-Qaeda higher-up), the scene has spiraled in on itself so skillfully that the audience has been manipulated just as much as the suspect.

A lot of this works because of Camp, who’s masterful in the part. And just as much is thanks to director John Dahl, who gives a scene that’s just two men talking in a room a sense of pace and excitement that’s inescapable. (I love how often he pins his camera on one of the two men as the other is talking, to judge their reactions as they try to figure out what they’re going to say next to achieve their goals.) And, sure, much of it is informed by the fact that we in the audience know Chesney and his cohorts won’t be successful in stopping the big attack that’s coming. Indeed, if you’ve read the book, you know one of the characters will die in that very attack.

But I really appreciate how writer Bash Doran didn’t push too hard with this scene. She simply let it play out like an interrogation scene you’ve seen in many other cop dramas, as the two men circle each other warily and look for weakness. The Looming Tower gains strength from its familiarity, from the way it engages with how cop dramas can use their workaday characters and scenarios to talk about issues that impact society as a whole. More recent police procedurals, which are far more rigid in how they think about solving a case per week, have lost sight of that just a bit. The Looming Tower, by virtue of its ultimate endpoint, knows that every case solved just leads to more suspects to track down.

By zeroing in on this scene, I don’t want to detract from any of the other elements that make the show work (especially performances from Tahar Rahim as Arabic-speaking FBI agent Ali Soufan and Michael Stuhlbarg as the tight-lipped National Security Council member Richard Clarke, both real men). But I do want to point to how it understands that on some level, good TV captures the feeling of being somewhere, day to day. It’s about the grind of life, the wins and the losses and the ultimate picture that only makes sense in retrospect. The Looming Tower tells a big story, but it understands that even in our own lives, we rarely understand big stories when we’re living them, except as smaller chunks.

The Looming Tower’s first three episodes are streaming on Hulu, with new episodes dropping on Wednesdays through April 17.

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