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‘The Looming Tower’ Producers on Creating a 9/11 ‘Origin Story’ for Americans Who Demand Answers

"The Looming Tower" creators knew a TV series about 9/11 would be a hard sell, but they also knew why people needed it.

THE LOOMING TOWER -- "Tuesday" - Episode 109 - The CIA becomes aware that Hazmi and Mihdhar are gone and must relay that to the FBI. O’Neill accepts a job as head of security at the World Trade Center. Soufan is sent back to Yemen. Hazmi, Mihdhar and Atta head to Vegas for a final indulgence. Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim) and John O'Neill (Jeff Daniels), shown. (Photo by: JoJo Whilden/Hulu)

Tahar Rahim and Jeff Daniels in “The Looming Tower”

JoJo Whilden/Hulu

By backtracking to what lead up to 9/11, the producers employed a reverse set-up to the widely viewed reactionary movies and shows. Instead of showing what happened next, “The Looming Tower” shows us how we got to that fateful day.

“It was the origin story,” Gibney said. “People don’t know that story very well, and it sets it also in a more innocent time, before the world changed and we launched this global war on terror. That, I think, was part of our calculus in terms of how to reach a larger audience. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have this origin story that runs up to 9/11?”

Beyond that, the basic narrative itself lines up with what’s been driving great TV dramas for years.

“This is a hell of a detective story,” Gibney said. “That’s what this is, really. We’re out in the field […] and trying to put the pieces together. If anything has proved its worth in entertainment terms over time, it’s the detective story or the mystery story. Detectives in their own way are truth-seekers or truth-tellers, and [“The Looming Tower”] is pretty riveting as a detective story.”

But Dan Futterman doesn’t even consider the project to be a 9/11 story.

“I hope people understand that it’s not about 9/11,” he said. “Yeah, we get to 9/11 in the tenth episode. I think it’s fairly clear [that’s] where we’re headed. But it’s the story of how we got there, how maybe we shouldn’t have gotten there, and of these characters involved in things that were bigger than they were.”

Futterman said he didn’t think about the 9/11 aspect being a deterrent to viewers.

“That’s something for Hulu to think about,” he said. “Whether people watch it or not, in a way, it’s not my problem. I would love for people to watch it. We re-ask some of the questions that 9/11 families have been asking for years and haven’t gotten answers to. We answer some of them. And I hope people come and watch it and ask again why we haven’t gotten an answer to this, why this information wasn’t shared, why this memo supposedly wasn’t read. But whether people watch it is something that’s out of my hands.”

THE LOOMING TOWER -- "9/11" - Episode 110 - September 11, 2001 and no one can get a hold of O’Neill. Soufan’s evacuation from Yemen stops short as the CIA Station Chief gives him all the answers he has been asking from the CIA for months. Schmidt is reinstated into Alec Station. Soufan finally interrogates Abu Jandal. John O'Neill (Jeff Daniels), shown. (Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)

The Intended and Imparted Significance

Because Hulu doesn’t release viewing statistics, the overall impact of the series will always be a bit unclear. (Hulu representatives were contacted, but unavailable for comment on this article.) The streaming network’s support, however, has been clear. “Looming Tower” billboards and posters dominated Los Angeles before and during its run. Advertisements ran online, and an Emmys For Your Consideration event was held in early April with stars Jeff Daniels, Bill Camp, and Wrenn Schmidt, as well as Gibney, Wright, and Ali Soufan.

Did it work? In the ever-expanding TV market, it’s hard to measure buzz, but “The Looming Tower” hasn’t dominated cultural conversation the way “The Handmaid’s Tale” did a year ago. Online, it trails a number of this year’s limited series in search traffic, including “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” “The Terror,” and “McMafia.” It trails all three in Twitter followers, and though it tops “McMafia” on Facebook (15,000 followers to 11,000), it’s far behind another new limited series, “Unsolved: The Murders of Biggie & Tupac,” in all social media.

In other words, the 10 episodes don’t seem to be earning a significant viewership. Despite Hulu’s best efforts and solid (if not outstanding) reviews, “The Looming Tower” appears to be another great work of art centered around 9/11 that audiences are widely ignoring.

To Wright, that means they’re missing out on something important. Not only is it an artistic loss, but ignoring stories about 9/11 may be emblematic of a national denial that can manifest in even more problems.

“It’s a tragedy, and it’s a tragedy that happened in our lifetimes, and it’s natural that many people would have a reluctance to go back and experience it,” he said. “What we offer is a chance to understand it […] but also to grieve. It’s hard to do, but it’s an essential thing to do. I think that’s one of the things we fail to do in this country very effectively: to accept the loss and fully incorporate it. What happens instead is Islamophobia and angry reactions, retribution, wars, and so on. All of those things are the opposite of what we also need to do, which is deeply understand what happened to us and go through the emotions that are appropriate to that.”

Catharsis is crucial to progress. Be it “The Looming Tower” or any number of emotional 9/11 narratives, these series and films offer a chance to acknowledge our national trauma and move on from it in a healthy manner. Americans may be reluctant to reengage with painful history, but it may be exactly what we need to avoid creating more mistakes — a warning Wright has now issued twice, in words and on television.

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