Magazine article Variety

Counter Intelligence

Magazine article Variety

Counter Intelligence

Article excerpt

Spoiler alert: This story doesn't have a happy ending.

Hulu's adaptation of Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller, "The Looming Tower," centers on FBI counterterrorism chief John O'Neill, who had been advocating for a deeper investigation into al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden.

But O'Neill was pushed out of the FBI, and on 9/11, he was working at the World Trade Center as the head of security. He died in the collapse of the towers, along with nearly 3,000 other people.

"This guy truly believes he was right," says JeffDaniels, who embodies the charismatic, bombastic yet deeply flawed O'Neill. "And in hindsight he was. But no one would listen to him."

Perhaps they'll listen now. It's been 16 years since the towers fell, 12 years since Wright published his book. Yet questions linger about the events that led up to the tragedy. And while "The Looming Tower" - which debuts Feb. 28 - may not provide full resolution (or even absolution), it takes a hard look at what was going on behind the scenes in our intelligence community - and how that bureaucratic conflict ultimately proved fatal.

"What motivated me to [approve the adaptation] after many years of people approaching me was I realized that young people now in college didn't experience 9/11," says Wright. "It's not a part of their history and they don't understand why we're living in the world we are. What I wanted to do is provide a narrative for them to understand it. 'The Looming Tower' could in a dramatic fashion make it clear to people what happened and why, and why we failed."

Wright had long been reluctant to see his book (which he calls "probably the most important thing I'd ever do as a writer") translated to the screen. "I was very jealous of letting go of it," he admits. "So the first obstacle was finding someone I trusted to do this story." That person was noted documentarian Alex Gibney ("Going Clear").

Gibney's imprint on the material is evident: The drama deftly intercuts narrative moments with pointed, documentary-style footage. Whether it's a chilling ABC News interview with bin Laden from 1998, news clips shown on a TV in a bar or O'Neill's office, or photos of the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, the blend of styles gives the series a jolt of authenticity. Witness that bin Laden interview, where he ominously warns of attacks against Americans: "We do not have to differentiate between military and civilian," he tells reporter John Miller. "As far as we are concerned, they are all targets."

That interview "set the tone we carry through the rest of the show," says Dan Futterman ("Capote"), who came on board as showrunner.

Gibney, who directed the first episode, says working with actors for the first time was a bit of an adjustment for him, but the material warranted a narrative approach. "I think that part of the reason that we decided to do it as a drama, rather than as a documentary, was that we were getting into the psychology of it and getting into scenes that couldn't possibly be re-created," he says. (His "bullshit detector as a documentarian" helped him adjust.) "We wanted to feel like we were inside the ongoing drama, that it was present tense."

The creative team made the rounds of studios to pitch the project, and though Hulu "didn't have a whole lot of heftin the TV world at the time," says Wright, the streaming service won its trust.

This may well be Hulu's most ambitious endeavor yet - a multimillion-dollar production staged across multiple continents, boasting an A-list ensemble that includes, along with Daniels: Peter Sarsgaard as his CIA counterpart; Michael Stuhlbarg; Bill Camp; and Alec Baldwin as CIA director George Tenet.

Hulu content chief Craig Erwich had read "The Looming Tower" when it was first published, back when he was an executive at Fox Broadcasting. "But at that point television wasn't doing things like that," he says.

Ten years later, the rules of TV have changed drastically - and Erwich leapt at the chance to tackle the book. …

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