‘The Looming Tower’ is a clinical, compelling War On Terror drama

I’m a man of simple pleasures, and when a TV show offers me— within a 15 minute duration — Jeff Daniels dancing to “Come On Eileen” in a Manchester pub, and Alec Baldwin blowing cigar smoke at Michael Stuhlbarg, I’m probably going to give it a glowing review. And there’s an argument to be made that The Looming Tower, Hulu’s glossy adaptation of the How 9/11 Was Allowed Happen non-fiction bestseller, offers little else. I am not going to make that argument. While Tower offers little new in the area of serialised political thrillers, in commentary on the consequences American interventionism or in any aesthetic realm whatsoever, it’s an intensely watchable, never-boring product with enough energy derived from its stunning ensemble to compensate for the often weak writing.

Leading the cast of All My Favourite White Actors Over 50 is Jeff Daniels, a never-less-than-delightful presence who has absolutely no place on this show, but somehow makes his role work anyway. As John O’Neill, the loud and arrogant FBI boss, he overacts the hell out of every moment leading to many unintentional laughs but constantly gripping action. Daniels belongs on Aaron Sorkin shows — he’s a slapstick comedian first, thespian second — and Looming Tower is a little too serious to support his character. A Sorkin-type (ie. the guy who wrote Miss Sloane) sprinkling some comedy in rewrites might have made the O’Neill figure feel more at home amidst the ominous 9/11 premonitions. There are moments on the show that are truly terrible: a trap remix of Arabic singing is used to soundtrack a Jeff Daniels sex scene, and it that sounds like too much for you to handle, you’d best stay away from this series. But when he’s given space, he makes it work: in a Manchester pub, after arguing with a loud Northern Irish investigator (Tony Curran) for several scenes, he does that “Come On Eileen” dance I mentioned earlier, and suddenly you’re totally in love with his performance.

It’s perhaps good that inherent clown Daniels is around, because everyone else on Looming Tower are incredibly Serious Men. Literally, Michael Stuhlbarg is in this show as Richard Clarke, Clinton’s counter-terrorism coordinator. His glasses permanently perched atop his nose, he’s in Full Stuhlbarg mode but he isn’t phoning it in like he was in The Post. At moments he’s gets ANGRY, and he’s phenomenal. Bill Camp, meanwhile, may just be the making of the show. He spends the first 2 episodes lumbered with a cheap Dead Girlfriend subplot, but once that’s abandoned he gets to shine in an Episode 3 interrogation as gripping as anything he did on The Night Of. Hopefully Looming Tower will earn him another Supporting Actor Emmy nomination. Peter Sarsgaard is playing a weird alt-version of his character from Green Lantern, more overtly evil than his character realistically probably was.

As the effective co-lead, Tahar Rahim provides a very likeable counter to what Daniels is doing, but some of his character’s dialogue is incredibly ham-fisted, especially in the exploration of his long-distance relationship with a schoolteacher. Alec Baldwin has had about 45 seconds of screentime so far, but it made me incredibly happy, and he’ll be back in future episodes. The appearance of female characters regularly feel shoehorned in, and few have yet to make an impact; the casting of B-grade actresses who somewhat fade into the scenery when put beside powerhouses like Daniels and Baldwin definitely wasn’t helpful: this show desperately needs a Lily Tomlin or Rachel McAdams to grab the scenes with two hands.

In terms of providing a balanced perspective on the War on Terror, Looming Tower is certainly trying its best not to be a Clint Eastwood or Peter Berg movie, while also digging its feet into the grounds of realism more than Homeland or Designated Survivor typically do. A retaliatory US airstrike at the end of Episode 3 is shown to kill some young boys; it’s presented as a tragedy even before it occurs as Stuhlbarg’s character struggles with the decision.

The decision to use the Muslim-born Rahim character as the hero of the show has some scent of tokenism (especially when he’s forced to make underwhelming Not All Muslims speeches) but nonetheless allows some small exploration of how everything going on in the show affected Muslim communities in the US, in England and in the Middle East. Looming Tower, however, isn’t really trying to be a great social commentary as much as an entertaining, relatively formulaic calcification of a modern historical moment. It doesn’t have the confident swagger of Ryan Murphy shows, but — in Daniels, Baldwin, Stuhlbarg and Camp — it has the meats of a damn solid drama.