BASED ON: ‘The Looming Tower’: Faith, the FBI and 9/11 Come Together in the Hulu Miniseries

Jeff Daniels (l), Tahar Rahim (r), ‘The Looming Tower’/Photo: JoJo Whilden/Hulu

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.

The Looming Tower, a Hulu series based on the Lawrence Wright book, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

The timeframe of events leading to the September 11th terror attacks differs between the Lawrence Wright book and the Hulu-produced miniseries. Wright contends Al-Qaeda was formulated soon after the founding of Israel, but the showrunners choose to start the opening episode with the 1998 US Embassy in Nairobi bombing.

The television series misses an opportunity to take up the faith of the lead CIA operative, Michael Scheuer (played by Peter Sarsgaard and re-named “Martin Schmidt” for the show). Scheuer, a pious Catholic, held a cool detachment about the job he was tasked with. In 1999, he received intelligence that Usama bin Laden was to spend an overnight at the governor’s house in Kandahar. Scheuer recommended an immediate cruise missile strike. The military balked in fear of potential collateral damage. It’s not surprising the show was quick to consider the conflicted faith of John O’Neill (see below), but omits faith references when lived faithfully and rationally as in the case of Scheuer. (Ed. Note: Or, it may also be that “Martin Schmidt” is a composite character.)

The book traces the FBI’s history, and I thought it made for a fascinating — if unofficial — recent history of the Catholic Church in the United States. Wright describes an FBI composed almost entirely of Irish- and Italian-American Catholic men who often called each boyish nicknames, like Tommy or Danny or Mickey.

What Wright latches onto as objective truth, I can affirm subjectively. Only later in life did I learn from a retired FBI agent that my hometown was designated as an “agent-town”— mostly Catholic, white-collar accountants and finance guys, some of whom served in the military, that the Bureau could draw fresh recruits from. I was one of them. One of my vivid memories as a teenager was being set-up with an agent from my parish. I interviewed him about his job and learned of the struggles and joys in his service to our country. As fascinating as the conversation went, God had different plans for me.

America’s enemies have since changed — existential threats abound from abroad, and so less necessary are those recruits who grew up in Mafia-infested neighbors of big-city America. Agent John O’Neill (played by Jeff Daniels) first realizes these latest and most relevant foes and added to his team Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim), a Muslim Lebanese immigrant, fluent in Arabic and Middle Eastern culture. Interestingly, O’Neill, in both real life and television, was a lapsed Catholic. Fittingly, I suppose, that one who is less obsequious to federal and clerical authority more readily challenges the status quo of operations.

Where the book only devotes a chapter to O’Neill’s infamous affairs and dalliances, the television show places his mixed personal life front and center — in fact, ensconcing it within a spiritual journey. These images juxtapose with depictions of Islam. Some critics took this as an indication of how similar the two faiths are. I disagree with the inference.

One equipped with a theological pedigree realizes the two faith traditions couldn’t stand further apart. Witness Muslim prayers intercut with a Catholic communion line. An imam delivers a long-winded, politically charged screed that effectively “talks God to death.” In contrast, the married O’Neill refrains from receiving communion. His unmarried mistress goes through the line. A great deal about the God of revelation and His people’s acceptance or rejection of Him is conveyed without the utterance of a single word.

Visual similarities, yet theological disparities, continue until the show’s tragic end. The radical Muslim Osama bin Laden orders the events of 9/11 from the remote confines of his technologically outfitted Afghan residence. O’Neill, recently retired from the FBI, takes the position of head of security for the World Trade Center. Survivors described his last moments of life as one who returned to a staircase dripping with jet fuel and helped others to escape.

In real life, O’Neill made an 11th-hour return to his faith in the spring of 2001, displaying the real, sacramental pull of the Church. For all of his personal faults, he rushed back into a hellish cauldron to live for others. In effect, at his life’s end, “Johnny” O’Neill took up his Cross and followed Him.

Image: Photo by JoJo Whilden/Hulu

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