Wrenn Schmidt, Peter Sarsgaard
Photo: JoJo Whilden (Hulu)

Early into the run of The Looming Tower, it’s easy to wish that someone could whisper into the ear of this series (or, since shows don’t have ears, into the ears of the people making it). You could lean in and whisper, “hey, The Looming Tower, you’re doing great! You don’t have to try so hard.” That, perhaps, might better leads to a better balance in episodes like “Losing My Religion,” an hour that sometimes makes its point and then underlines it a few times with a bright red marker. That extra emphasis just isn’t needed. But on the other hand, if The Looming Tower dialed it back a bit, we might not get some of Peter Sarsgaard’s beard-stroking, simpering petulance, and that would be a sorry thing indeed.

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Judging from these first two episodes, The Looming Tower isn’t particularly interested in subtlety. Complexity is another matter, and that’s a quality that helps to make this hour a particularly effective one. But for better and for worse, Dan Futterman, Alex Gibney, and Lawrence Wright are skywriting in capital letters here: we see prayer beads at a mosque, then rosaries at a Catholic service; it’s not enough that Inspector James (Tony Curran) side-eyes Agent Soufan’s (Tahar Rahim) easy drinking or his emotional outburst, he has to underline his suspicions of Soufan’s actions directly; and in case you weren’t already made aware by the last episode, these events occurred concurrently with the Ken Starr investigation and the testimony of Monica Lewisky.

Once you adjust to certain facts and themes being underlined once, twice, three times, odds are you’ll fall into the confident rhythm of The Looming Tower’s second hour. Events continue to move forward, with Agent Chesney (Bill Camp) and his team (notably Virginia Kull as Agent Kathy Shaughnessy and Sullivan Jones as Agent Floyd Bennet) trying to piece together what happened in Kenya, Agent Soufan traveling to the U.K. to attempt to figure out what the next target might be, and O’Neil (Jeff Daniels) and Schmidt (Sarsgaard) attempting to wrest control of the investigation into and hunt for Al-Qaeda. The focus is less on what’s discovered than on what’s experienced, with all of the figures mentioned above struggling to contain or process their emotions.

That’s true for no one so much as Sarsgaard’s Schmidt. While the best scenes of the episode belong to Camp and Rahim — something that was true of the last hour as well — it’s Schmidt’s increased presence in this hour that most helps to built the palpable tension. Sarsgaard colors Schmidt (a character created for the show) with sneering condescension and superiority, a man whose understandable sense of urgency renders him incapable of brooking any opposition or listening to any alternate point of view. Sitting next to Diane Priest (Wrenn Schmidt) at the episodes end, he listens as his female colleague calls President Clinton’s forthcoming testimony about his own conduct “disgusting.” He replies that he thinks it’s wonderful, because now the White House will be desperate to turn attention away from their own problems, and they’ll be willing to go after Al-Qaeda, “and we can humbly be of service.” That’s perhaps the mildest example of Schmidt’s inability to see the world outside of his own, fixed point of view, up to and including an unwillingness to place any sort of value on non-combative targets or accept even the slightest responsibility for missing a lead that may have prevented the embassy bombings.

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Director John Dahl makes the most of Sarsgaard’s unscrupulous air, capturing him like the sweating, stuttering villain he is, which is an odd thing to call a character working to stop Al-Qaeda. But the approach to that character is very different from that of Al-Owhali (Youssef Berouain), whose continued presence in the land of the living poses a problem for the organization that sent him out with that grenade. Berouain doesn’t have much to do in this hour besides limping, bleeding, and slumping, but it’s telling that his character functions here as an aspect of the plot, rather than anyone we’re meant to understand. He’s a terrorist, and he’s not supposed to be alive, less a real-life villain than a nightmare fact of history. Here, the series seems uninterested in the why, just in the what and when.

If Sarsgaard’s Schmidt emerges as the closest thing this story has to an American villain, then Camp’s Chesney and Rahim’s Soufan stand as our clearest fictional heroes — though the latter, of course, is a fictionalized depiction of a real person. It’s hard to pick a specific moment of Camp’s work that stands above the others. He’s excellent throughout, lacing his scenes with a current of understandable sadness and unexpected gentility. Rahim, however, gets a solid one-two punch in the form of his outburst at the owner of the copy shop and his response to Inspector James’s suggestion that his outrage is performative. It’s a terrific, deeply felt performance in which those big moments resonante all the more, surrounded as they are by his many scenes of reserve and outward calm.

It’s the dueling tensions of steady, emotionally difficult pursuits and ego-fueled, high-stakes bickering that give The Looming Tower so much of its power at this early stage. Performers like Camp and Rahim make sure to ground the story at a very human level, navigating grief and rage as they try to do their jobs. Daniels and Sarsgaard, however, are there to show us how even the best-intentioned people can cause grievous harm to the world when they sit in positions of power and can’t get over their bullshit. Both halves of this story dwell in the shadow of what’s to come, of more grief and rage, of more harm and bullshit. That’s the biggest source of tension of them all, and it makes The Looming Tower a gripping but uncomfortable watch.

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Stray observations

  • If there’s a sicker bureaucratic burn out there than telling someone his travel probably won’t be reimbursed, I don’t know what it is.
  • A moment of actual restraint: we see the now-dead barking dog from the previous episode without any sort of flashback or over-explanation. We know someone shot him, because Chesney didn’t.
  • The focus on O’Neil’s extramarital activities continues to bog down the show.
  • I can’t wait for the GIFs of white-haired, thoroughly exasperated Michael Stuhlbarg to start to roll out.

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