Bill Camp in The Looming Tower.
Photo: Casey Crafford (Hulu)

There’s a scene in the third episode of The Looming Tower that’s a classic example of a TV staple, but which surpasses many similar scenes through quality of performance, a few smart writing choices, and restraint. It involves Bill Camp, Youssef Berouain, Virginia Kull, and an interrogation room.

If Agent Chesney (Camp) and Al-Owhali’s (Berouain) tête-à-tête, during which Kull’s Agent Shaughnessy smokes in the hallway, stands as the episode’s highlight, it also emphasizes the some of the stumbles found elsewhere in the hallway. Chesney’s slow unraveling of Al-Owhali’s cover story works because the “good cop” we’re seeing isn’t so far off from the guy we’ve seen on the job throughout these first three episodes. The jolt of hearing Berouain speak in a London accent arises because for two and a half episodes, Al-Owhali hasn’t spoken a word in English. That reveal is startling, but it’s also the first instance of Chesney getting the edge in a conversation in which Al-Owhali is convinced that he himself has the upper hand. Chesney slowly gains a foothold and Al-Owhali doesn’t even realize it. It’s thoughtful, surprising, and character-driven.

It’s not the only great scene in this hour, but as stated above, its strengths directly highlight shortcomings found elsewhere in the episode. Camp and Berouain’s scene is a great example of a familiar formula, but when “Mistakes Were Made,” travels to London, the same can’t be said. When you’re dissecting a fictional retelling of actual events, it’s tough to say something’s dramatically unsatisfying — if that’s how it happened, that’s how it happened — but the short scenes in which Jeff Daniels’s O’Neil, Tony Curran’s James, and Tahar Rahim’s Soufan attempt to pin down an Al-Qaeda operative in Manchester are still somehow too long. It’s all familiar territory, and even the effective performances and thoughtful direction (by John Dahl) can’t keep it from feeling as if it’s a scene these men have played for years by rote. There’s not enough evidence, hollers one. I don’t give a damn, hollers the other. Must I remind you of the law, hollers the first. Must I remind you that lives are at stake, hollers the other.

In the end, the subject walks free, and the cops go to a bar. Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse. That last part isn’t fair, exactly. None of these scenes are bad, and all three men give the material their all. But there’s nothing about it that we haven’t seen a million times before, and with that interrogation room waiting to provide contrast, it’s tough not to wish they’d found a way to elevate the form.

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Mistakes were made in that story and in the way it was told, and the same is true of one of the episode’s other major arcs, Schmidt’s (Peter Sarsgaard) efforts to convince Richard Clarke (Michael Stuhlbarg, excellent) to advise the President to bomb two targets in Afghanistan. The mistakes in the story, suggested in Schmidt’s subcommittee appearance, include discounting the effect these bombings would have on Al-Qaeda’s messaging and recruitment, and in not thinking about what it would mean to drop bombs on children. Dahl’s handling of the last is unsubtle but effective; the show’s handling of the first will likely continue to play out, though Sarsgaard’s delivery of Schmidt’s hostile testimony, and his complete lack of anything resembling cool in his scenes with Clarke, make the point pretty damn clearly.

Alec Baldwin.
Photo: JoJo Whilden (Hulu)

It’s mostly effective stuff, particularly Sarsgaard’s aforementioned scenes and a latecomer between Stuhlbarg’s Clarke and Daniels’s O’Neil, an instance in which the latter’s short temper seems wholly justified and unrelated to ego. The big mistake here is the unnecessary and wholly distracting appearance of Alec Baldwin as George Tenet. Baldwin certainly has dramatic chops, but he’s not asked to use them here. That will likely change, but for now, it feels like an unnecessary cameo. Worse still is that the image of Alec Baldwin standing behind an expensive desk in a nice suit and throwing out a few zingers is so associated with 30 Rock that it’s a bit disorienting; even his delivery makes the scene feel like some sort of very dark Jack Donaghy outtake. It’s likely he’s got some big, home run scene headed our way, which will perhaps justify his presence here. If not, his appearance is a massive distraction that does nothing but throw a good story thoroughly off-kilter.

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More distressingly, it’s a scene that could have been handled in a 30-second phone call, perhaps making room for more scenes like the one Wrenn Schmidt has with Sarsgaard as they wait for the bombs to fall. In it, Schmidt’s Diane Priest explains why she’s practical about war. It’s well-written, well-acted, thoughtful stuff. However, it also emphasizes how little we know about her character, or indeed any of the female characters. We know more about Diane’s mother and Agent Shaughnessy’s firefighter dad than we do about two of the most important female characters in the series. The third, Deb, has been dead for two episodes now, and all we really knew about her was that she was charming. About the prosecutor Mary Jo, Soufan’s love interest Heather, and all of O’Neil’s paramours, we know almost nothing.

Neither Baldwin’s strange appearance nor the relative predictability of the Manchester storyline, nor the continued lack of development of the female characters can stop this from being a gripping hour of television, however. Camp and Berouain’s engrossing face-off more than makes up for a few stumbles, and Sarsgaard’s portrayal of the fuming, entitled Schmidt gets more entertaining and infuriating with every appearance. Let’s hope The Looming Tower course-corrects its Tenet problem and finds more ways to bring new life to familiar procedural tropes. 


Stray observations

  • Also great: Sarsgaard scaring the pants off of Agent Vince Stuart (Louis Cancelmi).
  • You may know Tony Curran (Inspector James) from all kinds of places. I know him as Vincent Van Gogh.
  • Did you know that Monica Lewinsky was preparing to testify during the events of these first three episodes? I don’t think I caught that the first dozen times, glad they revisited that here.
  • For those who love a good Wikipedia crawl, I suggest diving into the “mistakes were made” page. My favorite bit is “See also: non-apology apology.”
  • Apologies for the odd posting times today, I ran into some very stressful technical issues. If you have any issues with this review, just know that the first version of this one was perfect, before it vanished.

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