Hulu’s The Looming Tower is a 10-episode prestige drama about the most deadly terrorist attacks to ever take place on U.S. soil: Sept. 11, 2001. USA Today provided an extensive first look at the series on Tuesday, including stills from the first two episodes, interviews with the cast and creators, and a featurette including both behind-the-scenes and in-show footage. (Disclosure: Paste Contributing Movies Editor Shannon Houston is a staff writer on The Looming Tower.)
Per Hulu’s official synopsis, The Looming Tower, based on Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 bestseller of the same name, “traces the rising threat of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the late 1990s and how the rivalry between the FBI and CIA during that time may have inadvertently set the path for the tragedy of 9/11.” The limited series opens in 1998, shortly before terrorists bomb U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and ends with the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C. and rural Pennsylvania. Along the way, the show follows plots and attacks in the Middle East, Africa and Europe, achieving the feel of “an investigative thriller,” showrunner Dan Futterman told USA Today.
The drama’s eye-popping cast is led by Jeff Daniels (Godless, The Newsroom) as John O’Neill, a New York-based FBI supervisor who finds himself at odds with D.C. CIA intelligence officer Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard, Wormwood). Daniels tells USA Today he was intrigued by O’Neill, whom they describe as “a real-life (and larger-than-life) FBI counterterrorism chief in New York who worried about Osama bin Laden and the threat of terrorism.” “He ate steak. He drank. He didn’t take care of himself. He loved living large,” Daniels said of the now-dead O’Neill. “He was passionate about what the FBI did and what its role in the world was, and he had no patience for those who didn’t.” Daniels also reveals that O’Neill is The Looming Tower’s “Ignored Expert”: “[O’Neill] also had this secret that he was trying to share with everyone: that bin Laden was someone you needed to pay attention to,” he said.
The drama also features a number of prominent national security figures, including former National Coordinator for Counterterrorism Richard Clarke (Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name) and former CIA Director George Tenet (Alec Baldwin, The Boss Baby), as well as the boots-on-the-ground types, like FBI agent Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim, Mary Magdalene), who was one of just eight Arabic speakers at the agency at the time of the events portrayed. “Nobody is more devoted to his adopted country than” Soufan (who serves as a series consultant on The Looming Tower), Futterman told USA Today. “The chance to portray an immigrant from Lebanon, a Muslim-American hero, was exciting to me, particularly in this climate.” Rounding out the cast are Wrenn Schmidt (Outcast) as Diane Marsh, Bill Camp (The Night Of) as Robert Chesney, Louis Cancelmi (Boardwalk Empire) as Vince Stuart, Virginia Kull (Big Little Lies) as Kathy Shaughnessy, Ella Rae Peck (Feed the Beast) as Heather and Sullivan Jones (Parks and Recreation) as Floyd Bennet.
Speaking more to the show’s central thrust, Futterman explained that, per Wright’s book, the rivalry between the law enforcement-focused FBI and the intelligence gatherers at the CIA had a negative effect on their working relationship: “Possibly, had there been less personal animosity and more sharing of information, this tragedy might have been preventable.” The U.S. embassy attacks in Africa and the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole “provided clues and suspects, and those leads—had the information been properly shared—could have led to the people who were planning and executing the attacks of Sept. 11,” Futterman said. “But that didn’t happen.” He argues that The Looming Tower’s lessons are valuable even today: “One of the important arguments that John O’Neill and Ali Soufan are making is to treat (acts of) terrorism as crimes, not as the beginnings of wars.” That’s what the attackers want, “and will only help their recruitment.”
The Looming Tower
debuts on Feb. 28, 2018. See the show’s first-look featurette and photos below.