Hulu asserted its ambition last year with the dystopian literary adaptation The Handmaid’s Tale, a drama that resonated with viewers thanks to its congruence with certain strains in the culture in 2017. Now the streaming service is hoping for continued success with The Looming Tower, a series attempting a similar trick: adapting a respected book (nonfiction this time) into a series that’s both gripping and relevant. It succeeds, with a project that restages the years before Sept. 11 and tells a darkly ironic story about the fecklessness of government.
The Looming Tower‘s story comes from Lawrence Wright’s book of the same title about the conditions that led to the chaos of 2001. One such condition was a lack of cooperation–indeed, at times an active hostility coming close to subversion–between the CIA and FBI, two agencies whose unwillingness to cooperate led to missed opportunities. Peter Sarsgaard’s CIA analyst Martin Schmidt emanates waves of disdain for those around him; a list of al-Qaeda agents and potential targets his team has obtained is theirs both because he smartly doesn’t want to spread top-secret intelligence and because he guards his territory so jealously. Intelligence gathering is, for him and for Jeff Daniels’ FBI special agent John O’Neill, more than just duty. It’s competition.
The Looming Tower is clear-eyed about how human failings like vanity and obsession complicate the job of ensuring national security. There are also external factors, like the scandal surrounding Bill Clinton’s lying under oath, which Schmidt sees as a sign that the President will finally “pull the trigger on al-Qaeda.” It doesn’t matter that such an action would be a transparent distraction by design; for Schmidt’s career spy, all that matters is short-term, decisive action against al-Qaeda.
We’ve seen his type before, from a different vantage point. Once empowered CIA agents consumed with post-9/11 guilt sit at the center of the show Homeland (Claire Danes) and the film Zero Dark Thirty (Jessica Chastain). Those characters are forced to shoulder the guilt; the cast of men who form The Looming Tower’s intelligence community–including Alec Baldwin’s CIA head George Tenet and Michael Stuhlbarg’s counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke–get to act out the arrogance that came before. The show doesn’t need to strain to make points about the sort of person who refuses to intuit what’s on the horizon–not that that stops Schmidt from indulging in melodrama. “I don’t get paid, sir, to be a citizen of the world!” he shouts, testifying about lives lost half a world away in U.S. bomb strikes.
The show lands at an interesting moment. While its depiction of martial men in grave error will resonate among much of the same audience that made The Handmaid’s Tale a hit, those same viewers may currently find themselves investing a complicated sort of faith in the intelligence community. It’s an odd historical twist that has led some liberals to turn to the same law-enforcement and espionage figures who, a few years ago, were less widely embraced. The Looming Tower has little to say that will comfort these viewers. Its message, as the shadow of terrorism encroaches: while an internecine war raged in the halls of power, Americans were on their own. The connection is less obvious here than it was in The Handmaid’s Tale’s Gilead-to-America calculus. Take from it what you want, or, perhaps, what you most fear.
The Looming Tower streams on Hulu starting Feb. 28
This appears in the February 26, 2018 issue of TIME.
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