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Review: Hulu Debuts 'The Looming Tower'


In the late '90s, U.S. intelligence agencies were scrambling to neutralize a terrorist named Osama bin Laden and his organization, al-Qaida. A new series from Hulu called "The Looming Tower" dramatizes that struggle. Its first three episodes premiere today, and NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says realizing how it all ends adds to the show's tension.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "The Looming Tower" manages one of the trickiest feats in television. It's a whodunit that keeps you riveted even though you already know who did it.


DEGGANS: The first episode depicts al-Qaida's 1998 bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. It occurs a few years before the 9/11 attacks, which would turn bin Laden and al-Qaida into symbols of international infamy. Still, knowing what they would eventually do brings added weight to every moment in "The Looming Tower." Jeff Daniels is charming and magnetic as John O'Neill, the flashy, profane head of the New York FBI's counterterrorism squad. He's frustrated by the lack of cooperation from the CIA and his own bureau's lack of concern about the threat from terrorists in the Middle East.


JEFF DANIELS: (As John O'Neill) We're going to start acting on our role here and overseas. Let me ask you something. How many Arabic speakers do we have in the bureau?

TAHAR RAHIM: (As Ali Soufan) Eight.

DANIELS: (As John O'Neill) Eight. Thank you. Eight Arabic speakers out of more than 10,000 agents. That's how seriously our government takes this threat.

DEGGANS: Peter Sarsgaard is equally compelling as Martin Schmidt, the head of the CIA's al-Qaida unit. Schmidt is constantly urging his bosses to freeze out O'Neill and the FBI because he's convinced they'll blow the case.


PETER SARSGAARD: (As Martin Schmidt) You know what O'Neill will do. He'll arrest the first suspects he comes across and blow any chance of flipping them so that we can work our way up the chain of command.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) That may be.

SARSGAARD: (As Martin Schmidt) No, that will be. And then we'll just end up with a bunch of low-level turds in custody while the leadership of al-Qaida is walking blissfully around.

DEGGANS: When both men fight during a meeting over Schmidt's proposal to bomb 10 al-Qaida training camps in hopes of killing bin Laden, you hear the conflict between two different strategies for fighting terrorism.


SARSGAARD: (As Martin Schmidt) I have a very good idea, what I'm proposing - to eliminate the leader of al-Qaida.

DANIELS: (As John O'Neill) By carpet-bombing Afghanistan, which, I will remind you, did not attack us. This is exactly what al-Qaida wants us to do - overreact and slaughter innocent Muslims.

SARSGAARD: (As Martin Schmidt) Well, crush the head, and the snake dies.

DANIELS: (As John O'Neill) What are you, a frickin' (ph) Gypsy reading a fortune? We're talking about national security. You make a martyr of UBL, al-Qaida's recruitment goes through the roof. Find him, arrest him, put him on trial, then in jail. Treat him like a criminal, not a hero.

SARSGAARD: (As Martin Schmidt) We're at war.

DANIELS: (As John O'Neill) Only if we choose to be.

DEGGANS: This is quality TV with a serious pedigree. "The Looming Tower" is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 book of the same name by Lawrence Wright. Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney delves into dramatized material here, directing several installments and serving as an executive producer for the entire 10-episode series. The result is a show which feels kinetic like a documentary, weaving actual news footage in with recreated moments. It toggles between the infighting at U.S. intelligence agencies, organizing by al-Qaida and the personal lives of key characters. Viewers not only get a lesson on how al-Qaida built up its resources, but a front-row seat to the dysfunction and squabbling amongst U.S. officials, which left the country at risk. It's a bitter history lesson, artfully delivered at a time when we're still coping with the aftermath.


DEGGANS: I'm Eric Deggans.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.