Just a few days after 9/11, author Lawrence Wright was already searching for the right character to serve as the spine of his investigation into the horrific World Trade Center bombings. “You can’t write about 3,000 deaths, but you can write about one,” he told me.
When he found John O’Neill’s obituary in The Washington Post, he felt a spooky familiarity. “The import of his life and death carries the story. This former FBI agent, who was washed out of the FBI for taking classified information out of the office, wound up as head of security at the World Trade Center. This is the man who was supposed to get Bin Laden — and Bin Laden got him.”
Wright’s book contains weird echoes of “The Siege,” a prophetic 1998 Ed Zwick thriller co-written by Wright that starred Denzel Washington as the head of security at the World Trade Center; Tony Shalhoub’s character was based on Lebanese-American FBI agent Ali Soufan, who later played a key role in Wright’s eventual 2006 bestseller “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. ”
After a decade of avoiding any adaptations of his book, Wright decided the time was right, as long as his collaborator was again Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, who directed his films “My Trip to Al-Quaeda” and “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.”
“I was meeting young people for whom 9/11 was not part of their living experience,” Wright said at a TV Academy panel. “They don’t know that it could have been stopped. I knew that Alex would be able to stand up to any blowback we might expect from the controversial aspects of the story.”
Focusing on the power struggle between the FBI and the CIA felt like the right place to start. “John O’Neill knows in his heart and mind there’s an enemy we’re not paying attention to, and we need to pay attention,” said Gibney. “He was heroic in terms of what he was trying to do for the country, but beset by his own demons.”
Said Wright, “We decided it was a good idea to remind people where 9/11 came from.”
In addition to intercine intelligence battles, “The Looming Tower” presents the distraction of the Monica Lewinsky scandal; the August 1998 bombings at the Nairobi Embassy, where 224 people were killed and another 250 were blinded by flying glass; and the Al-Quaeda attack on the USS Cole outside Yemen, which killed 17 American sailors in October 2000.
Wright and Gibney went the rounds in 2016 pitching “The Looming Tower” as a TV series and were surprised at the level of excitement and commitment from Hulu, which was just entering the original programming fray. “We wanted control of it,” said Wright. “We wanted to make sure they would not back down under legal pressure.”
“Capote” screenwriter and “In Treatment” showrunner Dan Futterman joined the team as executive producer. After the three men gave Hulu two episodes and an outline for the show, they landed a greenlight for the series. They cast “Newsroom” Emmy-winner Jeff Daniels to play O’Neill along with an ensemble including Alec Baldwin, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Wrenn Schmidt. Tahar Rahim (“A Prophet”) was ready to pass when Gibney persuaded him to talk to the FBI agent he would play, Ali Soufan, who convinced the French-Algerian actor to brush up his Arabic dialects and English in order to play a Muslim hero.
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In his research, Wright met three women who said they were engaged to John O’Neill, as well as his wife and two children in New Jersey: “They all met at his funeral.” With O’Neill gone, there wasn’t a lot for Daniels to look at beyond Gibney’s 1997 Frontline interview and Wright’s book. So Daniels spent time with O’Neill’s old FBI partners to absorb their interrogation techniques.
“I learned about the good and the bad, the strengths and weaknesses,” Daniels said. “He was all over the place, he lived larger than life, searching for something: girlfriends, family, wife. He was leading double and triple lives. He’s a cad, going around seeing how many women he can get. I made the choice he was searching for something, he had insecurity. He’d give an incredible pep talk so people would run through a wall for him, and then say, ‘How was it, was it OK?’ He was looking for home and love in all the wrong places, but the FBI, that was home, that was his mistress. His true love was midnight working the phones. He loved it. When that was taken away from him, which it was, he was truly lost, and decided to straighten up on his new job. That was tragic.”
Bill Camp’s FBI operative embodies three agents who were too complicated to all make it into the story, said Wright: “The actions he takes are based on real people.” His key scene is a killer interrogation sequence that is entirely true. “I got to speak with the people who were there and lived through something very real,” said Camp on the panel. “I had the great advantage of knowing how the man who did it, did it.”
“These confessions were done without torture,” said Wright. “They were done in the classic manner. The FBI gain confidence and trust with a superior amount of information at hand. The scene feels fresh because that’s the way they really do it. It works. We’re dealing with sacred material, we have to be willing to honor that, to try to stick as close to the truth as you can and pay homage to the people who really did things to protect America.”
“They’re deeply human,” added Gibney, “which is also essential. In addition to skilled intelligent questioning, it was an essential understanding between two human beings with empathy. It’s not beating the truth out of someone. Truth is, torture gets false information. It’s the ability to create a sense of common humanity, to recognize this person is your enemy who wants to do you harm. You want information to protect others. It’s that understanding that you are both human beings that allows this information to be extracted.”
“You are there because you are fighting evil,” added Soufan. “You are not there to become evil.”
Schmidt approached her CIA operative as someone who believed she was doing the right thing. “The CIA to me is like a black hole, which is part of their strength,” she told the TV Academy. “She made poor decisions … She ultimately sees herself as a warrior and a patriot.”
Sarsgaard’s adversarial CIA man is another amalgam who Wright thinks is “more sympathetic” than the real guy he’s based upon, Michael Sawyer, who testified before Congress that the only good thing that happened on 9/11 is that a building fell on John O’Neill.
“We’re talking about personal animosity and institutional rivalry that was furious, and it was tragic,” said Wright. “Because had the CIA cooperated with the FBI in a timely fashion, I don’t think that 9/11 would have happened. And if we could go back to 9/11 and imagine that that day passed without incident and then Al-Quaeda had been captured and unraveled, the Iraq War had not happened, the torture hadn’t happened, the Afghan war, and the war on terror hadn’t happened — if you could take that back and restore America to what it was on 9/10, what a different world we would been living in!”
It all could have been different if the FBI and the CIA had been willing to cooperate. “No one has been held accountable and no one ever will be,” said Wright. “I hope we can provide some kind of narrative accountability for what happened on these days.”
On the TV Academy panel, Soufan agreed that 9/11 represented a “significant failure that happened and cost 3,000 people their lives because people weren’t talking to each other … This is not just a TV show, but a public service announcement to the American people who still have no accountability for what happened that day. Some people definitely made mistakes, committed a crime for not sharing information.”
“The CIA knew,” said Wright.
Gibney wound up directing the first episode, bringing an edgy cinema verite hand-held vibe to capture anarchic locations in South Africa, Pakistan and Morocco, while the New York sections were shot in a more locked-down, classic narrative style. “In episode one Osama Bin Laden is played by Osama Bib Laden,” he said. “And he’s very convincing.”
In a later episode, CIA director George Tenant’s testimony is first dramatized by Alec Baldwin; then we see archive footage of the actual testimony. Said Gibney, “It roots us in a time and place, yet allows us to go behind in order to understand what is going on backstage.”
Wright thinks that seismic changes in television made the series possible. “TV has changed in the interim between the time the book was published and when we decided to make this series,” he said. “The idea of placing a real event inside documentary footage sounds cool, but it’s hard and expensive.”
“The Night Of” production designer Lester Cohen, for example, evoked the aftermath of the Nairobi Embassy bombings with mounds of rubble. “They recreated exactly what the rubble looked like,” said Wright. “It reminds people that it’s real.”
With 10 episodes and far-flung locations, Futterman organized aggressive cross-boarding so that multiple directors would shoot out a location, and actors might deal with three different directors on a single day. Veteran film director John Dahl (“Rounders”) shot two episodes, while Ali Selim (“In Treatment”) participated in the writers’ room as well as directing.
The aftermath of 9/11 did bring major changes to the way government agencies work together. “The theme of this season is divided we fail,” Wright said. “The divisiveness now is not between intelligence agencies, but between the government and the agencies, which is even worse. We are still distracted by mundane salacious details. Al-Quaeda was at 400 people around 9/11; now it’s tens of thousands around the globe; its progeny are Isis and El Masra. It’s a huge movement and its goals have not changed. Our intelligence is in better shape, and our cooperation with foreign agencies is better, but we are still facing challenges.”