‘The Looming Tower’: Profoundly humourless, poorly-paced prose

The Looming Tower started as one of my most anticipated TV shows in years, and ended as one of my least favourite in quite a while. The 10-part adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s nonfiction bestseller was effectively constructed to build to a big conclusion: the worst terrorist attack in US history, a Tuesday morning still at the forefront of collective American consciousness. All The Looming Tower needed to do was to end on a dramatic, engaging high, with the perfect set-piece already writ for them. And they… just… couldn’t… do it. The Looming Tower’s tenth episode put the World Trade Centre attacks completely off-screen; abandoning Jeff Daniels’s character John O’Neill in his office before scooting off to the Middle East and merely informing us later on that “oh yeah, John O’Neill died in the towers”. It was a flat, cold ending to the flattest, coldest of television shows.

My mistake in expecting Looming Tower to be ‘great’ was ignoring the murky (in tone and quality) records of its creative team, so distracted was I by the G.O.A.T acting quadrant of Jeff Daniels, Alec Baldwin, Michael Stuhlbarg and Bill Camp. And I can’t attribute the show’s significant problems to any of these men. Daniels definitely did something new in this role; but what he did was create a character about whom I really, really didn’t care. Looming Tower was the same length as a season of The Newsroom, yet I hadn’t the slightest emotional investment in O’Neill outside of my preexisting love for Daniels.

Baldwin, for a credited Guest Star, has a much bigger presence than I had presumed, but he only shared 1 underwhelming scene with Daniels, a few with Stuhlbarg and was effectively just reading lines off a screen. He was fine. Camp had a big role in the first three episodes, then disappeared until the very end. And Stuhlbarg… Oh, Stuhlbarg. I can’t say anything bad about you. Stuhlbarg is really good on Looming Tower, despite his absurd wig, but he’s really likeable and an embodiment of the resignation the show tries to capture of the silly organisational failures that led to 9/11 being allowed to happen.

Looming Tower’s obsessive focus on the FBI/CIA feuding that was one, but only one, element of the problem is its downfall: there are undoubtedly some interesting explorations of Islamic extremism dotted throughout the season, notably an extended sequence in the “Boys At War” episode following a young boy unwillingly recruited into an attack. That episode, divided into four distinct segments rather than jumping between locations, was a definite standout. “Y2K” was the most atmospheric, “Mistakes Were Made” — which features Baldwin and Stuhlbarg’s first and best encounter, and Daniels on a mission in Manchester dancing to “Come On Eileen” — came closest to fulfilling the show’s potential to use its cast for brilliant fun.

The Looming Tower may have disappointed me, but it’s hard to argue it didn’t achieve its goal of documenting the late 90s-early 00s CIA/FBI mingling in pure, bleak prose. These episodes don’t quite function as entertainment or great examples of prestige TV, but they would definitely be effective in a classroom environment, or in the bibliography of a Security Studies dissertation. Perhaps Hulu’s biggest error was in releasing these episodes week to week, building up hype for a big ending that never came. As a batch in one-go, they would’ve existed in their rightful place as a single historical document. There’s a place for shows that care more for honest reporting than flashy filmmaking (the world of the documentary, I would argue). There’s a reason Aaron Sorkin used to make things up.