Roush Review: A Docudrama Boom in ‘Looming Tower’ and ‘Unsolved’

Losing My Religion
JoJo Whilden/Hulu

We are in a mini-golden age of first-rate TV docudramas, with FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story leading the charge, and the tragic conclusion of Paramount Network’s gripping Waco airing Wednesday.

Add to the must-see list The Looming Tower on Hulu, which has upped its game since The Handmaid’s Tale deservedly swept the awards circuit. A bitter recriminatory cloud hovers over this taut 10-part docudrama, less a 9/11 story than a cautionary prequel depicting conflicts between a territorial CIA and a combative FBI. If only they’d worked in unison instead of at cross-purposes to counter the threat of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, perhaps the tragic events of September 2001 could have been avoided.

That’s the contention of Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book, streamlined for TV to focus initially on the rivalry between John O’Neill (an explosive Jeff Daniels), the Bureau’s top counterterrorism agent in New York, and condescending CIA analyst Martin Schmidt (a chilling Peter Sarsgaard). The latter’s secretive Alec Station in Washington, D.C., smugly hoards its intel from irate law-enforcement brethren, and in retrospect, their war games appear unnervingly, horrifyingly childish.

“Stop telling me to calm down!” O’Neill roars during one jurisdictional dispute, and Daniels is in rare form as this profanely irreverent, recklessly larger-than-life bon vivant. Among his many reasons to rant is that the Bureau employs only eight Arabic-speaking agents, and much of The Looming Tower is seen from the perspective of Lebanese-American agent Ali Soufan (a fine, slow-boiling Tahar Rahim), first seen testifying about the interagency mess at a 2004 joint inquiry.

Peter Sarsgaard as Martin Schmidt in Hulu’s The Looming Tower.

The Oscar-worthy cast includes ubiquitous character actor Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me by Your Name, The Shape of Water) almost unrecognizable as White House adviser Richard Clarke, at wit’s end mediating these raging egos, and Bill Camp (The Night Of) as the FBI’s Robert Chesney, personally affected by the August 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya. This coordinated attack with the embassy in Tanzania revealed the deadly intentions of bin Laden, although the media at the time were consumed by the more titillating Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Tower often feels like a real-life Homeland, with romantic subplots uneasily shoehorned into a narrative that shifts between tense missions abroad and heated debates behind closed doors. While the FBI argues to treat the terrorists as criminals, the CIA promotes a military response, which O’Neill believes will only create martyrs and spur recruitment. Looming over it all is our own terrible knowledge of where this will end on 9/11.

The Looming Tower, Series Premiere, Wednesday, Feb. 28, Hulu

A Hot Cold Case

Wavyy Jonez as Christopher “Biggie” Wallace, Marcc Rose as Tupac Shakur in ‘Unsolved’ 

Whodunit? Even two decades later, who really knows? USA’s Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. is unlike most TV crime dramas, which tend to solve their mysteries within a tidy hour. This sprawling, intricate and absorbing 10-part limited series takes its time and plays with time as it revisits the fatal 1990s shootings of rap superstars Tupac Shakur and Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace (Marcc Rose and Wavyy Jonez, both uncanny).

The sometimes dizzying structure shifts between two separate investigations a decade apart: In 1997, dogged LAPD Detective Russell Poole (Jimmi Simpson), assigned to the fresh Wallace case, defies orders by seeking connections to the months-earlier Tupac murder in Las Vegas and pursuing evidence of possible police involvement. In 2006, Det. Greg Kading (Josh Duhamel) assembles a federal task force, reopening the B.I.G. investigation to fend off a $400 million lawsuit against the LAPD. The busy script also includes illuminating flashbacks that reveal a genuine friendship between the ill-fated rappers, despite their hailing from opposite and warring coasts.

While in a more traditional narrative, the lack of official resolution would seem frustrating, in this first-rate procedural, it somehow only makes the story more gripping.

Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., Tuesday, March 6, USA, 10/9c