One of the main reasons Lawrence Wright wanted to turn his Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction book into a TV series was he thought people were losing touch with what happened — and why it happened.
“What had become apparent to me is that enough time has passed, [and] a new generation has grown up, and they don’t understand what 9/11 was,” Wright said in an interview with IndieWire. “For them, it was like World War II was for me: It was something that happened in my parent’s generation that really changed the world, and they speak of it in hushed tones. But what was the world like before then?”
So when Wright set out to turn “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” into a limited series, he didn’t think of it as another 9/11 story. He and his chosen collaborator — Alex Gibney, who worked with Wright on the HBO documentary “Going Clear” — thought of it as a story people didn’t already know.
“It’s a really important story,” Gibney said. “If we want to understand where we’re at and why we’re at this place now, this is the origin story.”
Up until the finale, aptly titled “9/11,” Gibney and Wright did exactly that. Along with showrunner and fellow executive producer Dan Futterman (“Foxcatcher”), the trio crafted a detailed character study moving between two bickering governmental factions — the FBI and CIA — and their imperfect individual leaders. Both counter-terrorism groups were trying to prevent an attack on America, but their tactics differed as much as the men employing them. Incessant infighting paved a road to the horrific events on September 11, 2001, but the show focused on the people, their duties, and the conflicts that came with both, not the day of the attacks.
And yet, the towers loomed. Even if those words weren’t part of the title, there was no escaping where John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels), Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim), and the rest of the characters were headed. With regular chatter about al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, not to mention traumatic depictions of preliminary terror attacks, “The Looming Tower” could never avoid its endpoint. So instead, the series tried to engage with it differently.
Why? Because it had to.
A Brief History of 9/11 in Film and Television (and the Few People Who Saw Them)
It’s not that previous 9/11-focused stories were bad. In fact, some were among the most hailed achievements of their respective years. “United 93” earned two Oscar nominations, including a Best Director nod for Paul Greengrass. The 2006 film also snagged a WGA nomination for Best Original Screenplay and landed a number of citations from enthusiastic critics.
“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” nabbed two Oscar nominations itself, including Best Picture, while Oliver Stone’s 2006 drama, “World Trade Center,” is the director’s highest rated film since 1996 (per Metacritic), and he’s yet to top it. Similarly, the 2007 drama “Reign Over Me,” in which Adam Sandler played a man who lost his family on 9/11, was the actor’s best reviewed film for more than a decade. (“The Meyorwitz Stories: New and Selected” topped it just last year.)
All of these films focus, in one way or another, on the day itself, and all of them struggled at the box office. “World Trade Center” leads the pack with just over $70 million domestically — a respectable sum, but not for a studio-backed feature with a wider reach than some of the lower-budgeted fare, which didn’t perform any better: “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” offered Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock to go along with that Best Picture nomination, but it only squeaked out $31 million domestically. “United 93” made the same, and not even Adam Sandler in his prime could boost “Reign Over Me” above $20 million. (For context, his previous film, “Click,” made $137 million and his next film, “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry,” made $120 million.) All of these films earned a wide release, as well.
Television hasn’t fared much better. Select series (like “The West Wing”) tackled the day in specific episodes, but few series have put 9/11 front-and-center. The 2004 FX drama “Rescue Me” parallels “Reign Over Me” in a lot of ways — a central figure played by a comedian who’s been traumatized by losing family members on 9/11 — and it’s easy to argue the show was an outright hit. But it also distanced itself from its heavy historical connections quickly, be it through narrative or tone. (Leary, after all, is always the wiseacre.) Other series have been successful as reactions to 9/11; “Homeland” and “24,” like the nearly $100 million-banking film “Zero Dark Thirty,” were action-thrillers told from a post-9/11 mentality, not examinations of the day itself. Audiences may be more ready to again with American officials taking down terrorists than watching terrorists execute the deadliest domestic attack since Pearl Harbor.
What Makes “The Looming Tower” Different
Wright was aware of the national reticence toward 9/11 stories all along.
“I faced the same thing when I was writing the book,” he said. “I signed the contract in February 2002 and was supposed to turn in it February 2003. I scratched that out and wrote in April and turned it in five years later. In the interim, 100 books came out, and — I didn’t have any expectations — [but] it was demoralizing to see how many books came out that didn’t have that much of a reception.”
When Wright and Gibney cooked up a strategy for the series, they felt their approach would separate “The Looming Tower” from other 9/11 stories.
“I think a lot of the 9/11 stuff that had been done had focused very much on the event itself,” Gibney said. “[By] going back in time to 1998, we came up with a central motor for the narrative, which was this conflict between the FBI and the CIA, both motivated to try and protect America but really at loggerheads in terms of what their roles were. The tragedy of that drama, set against real-life events, would maybe engage people in a way that some of the other 9/11 stuff wouldn’t.”