‘The Looming Tower’ offers confusing, frustrating take on history

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Grade: 1.0/5.0

It seems like every year there’s a new television or film adaptation of a 9/11 story. This year’s comes in the form of a 10-episode serial from Hulu, entitled “The Looming Tower.”

The series is an adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name — though, as the New York Times noted, it’s more American-focused than the book. Wright — along with screenwriter Dan Futterman and documentarian Alex Gibney — executive-produced the series, which follows a handful of CIA and FBI agents, led by Jeff Daniels and Tahar Rahim, who failed to communicate and respond effectively ahead of the 2001 attack.

“The Looming Tower” boasts a blend of fictionalized scenes with reenactments and the occasional use of archival footage — including an ABC interview with Osama bin Laden and a press conference with then-president Bill Clinton. The series makes use of the kind of high-contrast lighting and high production value we’ve seen from other Hulu series.

Still, the direction and design of “The Looming Tower” is nothing to write home about. Where “The Handmaid’s Tale” uses mood lighting and expressive camera movements to reflect the psychology of its characters, this series feels less insightful. Instead, the design and direction here merely further the series’ affinity with thriller and documentary genres — and it’s even managed to make those seem lackluster.

Perhaps “The Looming Tower” is attempting to subvert the procedural method of approaching law enforcement and crime dramas, in which officials are seen as professionally challenged, but still ultimately doing their jobs successfully and “catching the bad guys” by the end of the hour.

By contrast, this series doesn’t seem intent on heroizing its federal agents or providing satisfaction to the audience. This is perhaps the only part of the series that’s interesting.

It’s the 1990s, and it appears that the FBI is still a grotesque boys’ club, even with women around. The show itself doesn’t seem much better — several of the women, half of whom are hypersexualized wives and mistresses, remain nameless three episodes in.

For a series based on true events, there are two ways to be “historically accurate.” One is to directly quote recorded conversations. The other is to use language or actions that the audience will understand as communicating traits of real people, even if it’s not exactly how the “real events” went down.

With the latter, there’s more creative freedom. This means that writers portraying sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. real people can take creative liberties in depicting the bigoted traits of said “real people.”

Less than five minutes into the pilot, we’ve already seen a white male boss condescend a member of the all-woman team he leads. Fifteen minutes in, several of the characters have made a mockery of Rodney King’s murder, as well as explicitly misogynistic comments first about Monica Lewinsky, then about women in general. (Did you know these guys have slept with and objectified lots of women? They won’t let you forget it.)

It’s hard to know if the writers were using their creative liberties to portray the real men’s sexism or if the “jokes” are reflections of the writer’s own misogyny — or both.

Either way, it’s detestable — even if it arguably serves a narrative “purpose.” Maybe the purpose is to establish that the guys are unsavory. (Obvious.) Maybe the purpose is to expose “locker room talk.” (Also obvious, and tired.)

I could go on, but unlike the men of “The Looming Tower,” I won’t.

Hulu’s adaptation of “The Looming Tower” fails to offer anything we haven’t seen before, and it certainly presents only a fraction of its source material.

The viewer is likely to walk away frustrated with (male) characters whose names they won’t remember (save for Rahim’s Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-born FBI agent whose name is repeatedly mispronounced and whose nationhood is frequently questioned), as well as feeling as though they’ve wasted their time — that is, if they can make it through the first few episodes.

“The Looming Tower” is currently available for streaming on Hulu.

Sophie-Marie Prime covers television. Contact her at [email protected].