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TV Series Review

We all remember what happened on 9/11. How could we forget?

Just the way I wrote that first paragraph illustrates how much that day changed everything. We don't refer to John F. Kennedy's assassination as 11/3. Even though President Franklin Roosevelt called Dec. 7, 1941 a "day that will live in infamy," we still need reminders of why that date was so infamous.

But we need not remind people what 9/11 means. We don't have to refer to it as "the World Trade Center disaster," or "the terrorist attack that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001." The date says it all. Most of us can instantly recall where we were and what we were doing on that fateful day.

But the events of 9/11 didn't instantly manifest themselves from the ether—a fully formed, fully armed creature springing fully imagined from Osama bin Laden's head. No, 9/11 might've not happened at all except for what happened on (to pull a random date out of the air) Dec. 12, 1999. Or Feb. 15, 1997. Or April 2, 1994. The planes might have come from out of the blue, but in the background grew the venomous plant that spawned the attack, watered and fertilized by al-Qaida and … the United States, too?

That day was, according to Hulu's The Looming Tower, the end of a tragic story—one that began years before. It shows how every step and misstep made by the American government and al-Qaida terrorists before 9/11 led inexorably to a date that, indeed, lives in infamy.

Hindsight Is 20/20

Hulu's miniseries is based on Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. But this show's no documentary: It takes the facts and conclusions of the book and shapes a dramatic narrative from them. Some of its characters are amalgamations of several real people and emblematic of the attitudes of various agencies—agencies that often seem to be as much at war with each other as al-Qaida.

Take Martin Schmidt, head of a CIA Counterterrorism Center called Alec Station (and a fictional composite of several real people). He believes that al-Qaida is a great and growing threat. And when the terrorist organization bombs two American embassies in Africa, he knows what we have to do: strike back and strike hard. Kill bin Laden. Destroy his training camps and financial backers. Cut the head off the snake and be done with it, regardless the cost or ancillary casualties.

John O'Neill (based on a real person) takes a different tack. He's chief of an FBI Counterterrorism Center known as I-49. That makes him, essentially, a cop, and he views the attacks as crimes. He's no less determined to mete out justice, but instead of calling in the bombers, O'Neill calls in agents to hunt down the culprits and bring down the organization as he might the Mob. And when he hears of a recent retaliatory strike suggested by Schmidt and his CIA, he knows for sure of one thing it'll accomplish for the terrorists: "They'll get a ton of new recruits."

The FBI and CIA seem incapable of working together, and there are political concerns to weigh as well—considerations that hang heavily over the White House and especially Richard Clarke (another real person), the President's chief counterterrorism adviser. Yes, al-Qaida is a threat. Yes, it's important to destroy that threat. But what about collateral damage? Innocent lives? What might be the cost in reputations and elections? Early in the series, we hear that President Clinton is mired in the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal: If Clinton starts calling for bombing runs throughout the Middle East, will the media squawk about how he's trying to distract national attention from his own unseemly issues?

Meanwhile, the leaders of al-Qaida sit and plot over tea. Its operatives methodically prepare for attacks in unobtrusive corners of Europe and America. And the timer ticks down, day by day.

A Television Tragedy

The Looming Tower is, on one level, riveting television. And despite taking some dramatic liberties, the show's makers stick closely to the overarching historical narrative here. As such, the series feels weighty and surprisingly gripping, given that everyone in the audience knows how it's going to end. The Looming Tower needn't rely on unseemly content to get viewers' attention.

Alas, it relies on such content anyway. For a show predicated on intra-agency squabbles and high-risk information gathering, The Looming Tower spends a surprising amount of time in the bedroom. Indeed, some of its sex scenes—filled with explicit nudity and obvious movement—might make the makers of HBO's Game of Thrones blush a little. We hear about folks having multiple affairs, and we're exposed to plenty of sexualized dialogue. Blue language litters the halls of the White House and elsewhere. And the horrors of this covert war haunt almost every episode, with dead bodies of men, women and children lying lifelessly in the dirt or under piles of rubble.

For all its reportedly slavish devotion to the facts, The Looming Tower feels gratuitously tawdry far too often. And while I haven't read Lawrence's award-winning work myself, I'm tempted to step out on a limb and say that in this case, the book must be better.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles



Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

The Looming Tower: Feb. 28, 2018 "Mistakes Were Made"



Readability Age Range



Jeff Daniels as John O’Neill; Tahar Rahim as Ali Soufan; Wrenn Schmidt as Diane Priest; Bill Camp as Robert Chesney; Louis Cancelmi as Vince Stuart; Virginia Kull as Kathy Shaughnessy; Ella Rae Peck as Heather; Sullivan Jones as Floyd Bennet; Michael Stuhlbarg as Richard Clarke; Peter Sarsgaard as Martin Schmidt






Record Label




On Video

Year Published



Paul Asay

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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