The Looming Tower. Available Thursday, February 28, on Hulu.
In the days following 9/11, The Siege—a 1998 box-office dud in which paranoia about terrorism causes the U.S. government to declare martial law and start herding Muslims into prison camps—became the most-rented video in America, "making me the first profiteer in the war on terrorism," the film's screenwriter Lawrence Wright morbidly joked at the time.
No disrespect to Mr. Wright—far from it—but it may be that his reputation and bank account will prove to be Osama bin Laden's most lasting legacy. Following The Siege, Wright in 2006 wrote a magnificent, Pulitzer Prize-winning history of modern jihad, The Looming Tower.
That was followed in 2007 by a one-man, off-Broadway show, My Trip to Al Qaeda, partly an adaptation of the book and partly a reflection about what it meant. Three years later, Wright turned out an HBO adaptation of the play. Both were widely praised.
And now Wright has turned his book into a Hulu miniseries about the handful of U.S. national security officials who saw bin Laden coming and tried to stop him, much to their government's indifference. It's scary, a little sickening, and entirely spellbinding.
Perhaps it would better to say that Wright has turned a part of his book into a miniseries. The Looming Tower has undergone massive compression in this conversion to the screen. The book is a sprawling history that begins with the tale of Egyptian educator Sayyim Qtub's 1948 trip to America—his account of the sexual predation and heretical dietary habits (salt on melons!) of Greeley, Colorado, is considered to be the intellectual foundation of Islamic fundamentalism—and extends to virtually every point on the geographic and political compass as it tracks jihadists and their pursuers alike.
This 10-hour miniseries has reduced the story to a single electrified thread that ticks like a time bomb, the lackadaisical U.S. tracking of bin Laden in the years before the September 11. Sloughing the history and ideology of al Qaeda may make the show less intellectually satisfying than the book, but what's left in the miniseries shines diamond-hard and brilliant.
The Looming Tower miniseries begins in 1998, in a Washington still smitten with the idea that the end of the Cold War was the prelude to a peaceful world in which ideological conflict had no place. Not that the upper echelons of the Clinton administration didn't have fears, but they mostly centered on Monica Lewinsky's blue dress. Practically nobody is concerned about bin Laden, an obscure sheik whose mad threats to make war on Washington sound like Third World magical thinking.
Among the few people in Washington who disagree are John O'Neill (Jeff Daniels, Godless), the head of the FBI's counterterrorism section, and Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard, The Killing), chief of the CIA station code-named Alec, which was entirely devoted to the pursuit of bin Laden. And it's the vicious, no-holds-barred battle between them—and with their own bosses—as they competitively pursue bin Laden that's at the center of The Looming Tower.
Both are organizational renegades whose jobs perpetually dangle by threads. The New York-based O'Neill, enraged when FBI Direct Louis Freeh sides with another office in a jurisdictional dispute, screams at his Washington rival: "You and Louie can go fuck yourselves, or each other, whichever makes you happy!"
Schmidt's prose is more elegant, but his propensity for bureaucratic kamikaze-dom equally zealous. He has a complete meltdown when the CIA won't let him order a missile strike on a desert hunting camp in Afghanistan where bin Laden was visiting with a United Arab Emirates prince.
(The Schmidt character is a thinly disguised fictional version of the real head of the CIA's Alec Station, the since-retired Michael Scheuer. I once asked Scheuer if the agency's fear of the diplomatic ramifications of killing a member of the UAE royal family wasn't at least a little bit reasonable. He rolled his eyes. "The world is lousy with Arab princes," he declared.)
The rank enmity between the two men, who lie to and insult one another constantly, is partly personal, the inevitable result of a collision between two guys who each think they're the smartest man in the room.
But it also reflects the institutional values that have kept the CIA and FBI from working together very closely over the years. O'Neill, like the FBI, is oriented in making arrests and winning trials. Schmidt, with perhaps a keener ear for the exigencies of operating in the tangled morass of Third World politics and legal systems, prefers to collect intelligence toward cold-bloodedly killing bin Laden. And if there's collateral damage in terms of foreign lives, well, "I don't get paid, sir, to be a citizen of the world," as Schmidt tells a congressional investigator. Their conflict continues through CIA bunkers, Islamabad back alleys, and the smoking ruins of American embassies as the story careens to its awful, inevitable conclusion.
The Looming Tower's framing device—it starts with, and periodically returns to, the 2004 congressional investigation of the 9/11 attacks—gives it a bit of a credibly documentary undertone, undoubtedly the purpose for which filmmaker Alex Gibney (who partnered with Wright on the HBO documentary based on his book Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief) was brought on to the project.
But this is no plummy PBS work. The increasingly rancid strife between O'Neill and Schmidt plays out like a flickering fuse burning toward a detonation that we know only too well. The Looming Tower, for all its irrefutable authenticity, is a thriller, the kind that makes your palms sweat as you grip your seat—even though you know exactly how it will end. I only wish I had a spoiler alert for you.