Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 12, 2018)
Lawrence Wright’s 2006 history of the events that led to the 9/11 terrorist attacks receives a “limited series” adaptation in Hulu’s The Looming Tower. This two-disc set includes all 10 episodes, and the plot synopses come from the package’s insert.
Now It Begins…: “The chief of the FBI’s counter-terrorism unit, John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels), invites rookie Muslim-American agent Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim) onto his squad.”
As a pilot episode, “Begins” needs to establish a mix of characters and scenarios. It does so in a competent manner, but I can’t claim it goes beyond that. Though “Begins” provides a decent launch to the series, it fails to turn into anything truly involving.
Losing My Religion: “Following the simultaneous embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the FBI begins its investigation on the ground while the CIA starts working on a retaliation plan.”
After the literally explosive ending of “Begins”, “Religion” offers a pretty engaging tale. The episode sputters a bit when it concentrates on the tedious personal relationships among the characters, but the moments that deal with actions and investigations deliver good drama.
Mistakes Were Made: “The FBI finds one of the surviving terrorists and discovers a game-changing lead in Nairobi, while the CIA’s retaliation plan is approved.”
As I noted when I looked at “Religion”, I don’t find the series’ interpersonal moments to offer much of interest, and that becomes a negative factor with “Made”, as it spends more time than usual with the characters’ private lives. We get enough substance related to the investigations to allow the program to work fairly well, but it fares less well than its immediate predecessor.
Mercury: “Continuing to keep information from the FBI, Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard) is fired from Alec Station. Diane (Wrenn Schmidt) makes an important discovery about the owner of the phone number Owhali (Youssef Berouain) gave Chesney (Bill Camp).”
I don’t want to get into broken record territory, but “Mercury” again suffers from an overemphasis on character areas. Maybe I should view this more as a docu-drama and less as a historical piece, but I continually wish Tower would focus more strongly on the facts behind the events and less on the lackluster interpersonal areas.
Y2K: “The CIA and FBI are on high alert as threats surrounding the new millennium abound. O’Neill and Soufan raid an Al-Qaeda cell in Brooklyn. The CIA continues to hide vital information from the FBI.”
Ah, Y2K – the 21st century event we thought would spell doom and gloom! The combination of the general investigation and the Y2K material adds some spice to the episode, and a lesser-than-usual focus on character drama makes this the most involving show in a while.
Boys At War: “Vince (Louis Cancelmi) continues asking for permission to share Mihdhar’s (Tawfeek Barhom) visa with the FBI. O’Neill loses his briefcase and an investigation into his handling of classified materials begins.”
Heading into the series’ second half, we get our clearest link to 9/11 so far, as “War” introduces Mohammed Atta, one of the main participants in that attack. That adds an element of foreboding to the proceedings, but too much of “War” goes back to relationships, with an emphasis on O’Neill’s infidelities. The focus on those bits makes this a lackluster show, although the ending adds power.
The General: “O’Neill and Soufan travel to Yemen to begin the investigation into the bombing of the USS Cole. The FBI becomes aware of a meeting in Malaysia and of Khallad (Samer Bisharat).”
As the series approaches its conclusion, it starts to lean more heavily on the investigatory side of things. That comes as a relief, and the view of the deepening threat helps turn this into an unusually effective episode.
A Very Special Relationship: “Everyone adjusts to a new president and with it a shift in threat priority. The terrorists in the US, Hazmi (Nebras Jamali), Mihdhar and Atta (Zafer El-Abedin), are lost by their US handler.”
Given how close we are to the finale, “Special” focuses too much on those tiresome interpersonal relationships. We still get some good narrative movement but the time spent with the characters’ private lives undercuts its effectiveness.
Tuesday: “The CIA becomes aware that Hazmi and Mihdhar are gone and must relay that to the FBI. O’Neill accepts a job as head of security at the World Trade Center. Soufan is sent back to Yemen.”
As the series’ penultimate show, it builds tension – at times. Unfortunately, it still digresses more than I’d prefer, and those moments mean a less than stellar show. No matter how hard Tower tries to invest in the characters, those bits just don’t register.
9/11: “It’s September 11, 2001, and no one can get a hold of O’Neill. Soufan’s evacuation from Yemen stops short as the CIA Station Chief gives him all the answers he has been asking for.”
Despite my general lack of enthusiasm about “Tuesday”, it did end well, especially via its use of real circa 2001 video of the actual people involved. These moments pack a punch and will create a creeping sense of dread in those of us who remember the events of 9/11.
The final episode wastes no time in its exploration of the titular day, as the first plane hits the WTC early in the show. These moments boast power but the rest of the episode feels less consistent and doesn’t engage as much as I’d expect.
Like “9/11”, Tower offers a generally good experience, but I admit it disappoints in the end. I suspect its creators felt the reliance on character information would add to the emotional power of the events, but that doesn’t occur – and doesn’t need to occur, as 9/11 continues to create a devastating impression all on its own.
This leaves Tower as an interesting but not wholly satisfying series. The historical elements fare well but the rest sputters.