‘Looming Tower’ examines the events leading up to 9/11

Mark Kennedy
AP Entertainment Writer

Not too long ago, Peter Sarsgaard felt he had to have a difficult conversation with his oldest daughter about 9/11.

He and Ramona, then 9, were in a car on the anniversary of the terror attacks and the twin light beams above ground zero were switched on. The girl declared them “pretty.” That’s when her dad realized he needed to explain what they were, right then and there. She’s not alone.

“There is a whole generation of people that are in their late teens — that are 20 even, if they were 3 at the time — who I think need to start learning about this in some way,” he said.

This month, Sarsgaard is doing that, teaching on a massive scale as one of the stars of “The Looming Tower,” Hulu’s powerful look at the events that led up to the al-Qaida-led 2001 attacks, a series that is as much a thriller as a geo-political education.

The 10-episode miniseries, adapted from Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title, sent film crews to eight countries, including Morocco and South Africa. It signals Hulu’s deepening effort to offer complex, interesting offerings following its success with “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“The Looming Tower” starts in 1988 and charts key figures in the CIA and FBI as they chase down clues — and often jostle each other — to uncover Osama bin Laden’s plot and stop it. The series is brutal about the missed opportunities and rivalries between the agencies and doesn’t flinch at showing violence to innocents, both at home and abroad.

“I wonder if because 17 years have past almost, whether we’re ready for it now,” said Jeff Daniels, who stars as hard-charging FBI agent John O’Neill. “Closer to the actual attack of 9/11, no one wanted to hear if there was someone to blame. We knew who to blame — it was bin Laden and al-Qaida.”

Sarsgaard, who plays a reptilian CIA anti-terrorism chief, knows all too well how dangerous wading into the subject of 9/11 blame can be. His wife, Maggie Gyllenhaal, created a firestorm in 2005 when she suggested that U.S. foreign policy might have had some role in the attacks.

“The backlash was so massive — it was on CNN, it was on everywhere — we had to leave the country,” said Sarsgaard. “Presumably enough time has passed now that we can start thinking about what went wrong, right?”

Dan Futterman, the series’ show runner who wrote teleplays for the first two episodes, said the 10-hour show tries to explain without judgment what motivates the three groups — CIA, FBI and al-Qaida — even portraying members of the terrorist group as human beings. “That may be the worst pushback we get,” he said.

Wrenn Schmidt, who plays a workaholic and ambitious CIA analyst in a very male-centered organization, said she came out of the experience with enhanced respect for intelligence gatherers working in the shadows. But she appreciates the series’ care for balance.

“The story’s not trying to tip your favor with one person or one group,” she said. “For better or for worse, all of those people think they’re doing something right or doing something that is in service to a greater purpose.”

The filmmakers have taken some dramatic liberties, including making Sarsgaard’s character a composite of several CIA analysts. “We didn’t get a lot of access to the CIA, so in a way it was necessary to do that,” Futterman said. But Daniels’ hot-headed O’Neill is based on a real person, a man the actor calls “an unsung American hero.”

“That was a time when we had the best and brightest in government, and a fully staffed government,” said Daniels. “What’s different? What have we learned?”

Futterman said he thinks intelligence sharing is better now than it was in 2001, but divisions in government may be worse. There are many unanswered questions about the events leading up to 9/11 and he sais he hopes the series can keep up the pressure.

“If we made it for anybody, it’s made for those people who’ve been wanting to get answers as to how this happened for a long time,” he said.

‘The Looming Tower’

10-part series beginning Wednesday

Streaming on Hulu