New TV show of FBI agent who hunted bin Laden but died in 9/11

Jeff Daniels (left) plays Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent John O'Neill (right) in the new Hulu series The Looming Tower.
Jeff Daniels (left) plays Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent John O'Neill (right) in the new Hulu series The Looming Tower. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST/FBI

WASHINGTON • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent John O'Neill smokes cigars, uses the same romantic line on two girlfriends in two cities and rants about some guy named Osama bin Laden.

And that is just in the first episode of the new Hulu series The Looming Tower, which centres on the real-life tragic figure in the years leading up to 9/11.

"He was abrasive, he was a flagrant womaniser, he gulped life and he was brilliant," said Jeff Daniels, who landed the plum role. But, maybe most importantly, "he was right".

In real life, O'Neill spent the final years of his FBI career chasing bin Laden, but left the bureau in 2001 in disgrace before he could get his man. After that, he became head of security at the World Trade Center, where he was killed in the 9/11 attacks.

The twisted fate of his tragic end was the impetus for Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 book, The Looming Tower. Shortly after the attacks, Wright was sifting through obituaries of the victims, trying to put a human face on the disaster, when he stumbled on O'Neill's.

"It made him sound like kind of a failure because they said he had been head of counterterrorism in New York and had been washed out of the bureau because he took classified information out of the office," said Wright during a recent visit to Washington, D.C., alongside some of the show's actors and producers. "And I thought, wow, he didn't get bin Laden; bin Laden got him."

Wright's book is a sweeping and highly detailed look at the birth of Al-Qaeda dating back to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1950s Egypt, but the series, which Wright adapted alongside documentarian Alex Gibney, zeros in on a tighter timeline. It begins in 1998 with the US Embassy bombings in East Africa and focuses mainly on the rivalry between O'Neill at the FBI and Martin Schmidt (a composite character played by Peter Sarsgaard) at the Central Intelligence Agency. The men despise each other and sometimes refuse to share information, even though secrecy may not be in the best interest of the American people.

The Looming Tower, like recent series The People V. O.J. Simpson, revisits a well-publicised tragedy that people think they know well, only to subvert their expectations. For those who have not read Wright's book, the show will be a shocking look at government dysfunction at its most dangerous.

The series is also a chance to revisit O'Neill, not as the failure his obituary painted, but as a prescient and astute - albeit still highly flawed - individual who "would go to the mat for his guys", according to Daniels.

Not that it was easy to get a handle on the larger-than-life figure.

Dan Futterman, the Oscar-nominated writer of Capote (2005) and Foxcatcher (2014), served as showrunner on the series and said recollections of O'Neill were impossibly myriad. "You would hear that his power was in his silence and other people would say he would scream at everybody," he said.

"So, at a certain point, you just have to decide which way you're going. Everybody has different memories of different people who are no longer with us, so I'm sure there will be some people who are not thrilled with our portrayal of him and some people who think it's exactly spot-on."

When Wright was working on his book, he remembers O'Neill's acquaintances either loving the man or hating him with equally intense vigour. Some of his fans even copied his style of suits, referring to themselves as the "sons of John", according to Wright. His detractors, meanwhile, "wanted to have him taken out".

Ultimately, the latter faction won, leaking a story to The New York Times in August 2001 about how O'Neill misplaced a briefcase with highly classified information.

Working on the show was not only an education in finding a character, but it also gave Daniels a deeper understanding of 9/11.

"I had no idea that there was this much conflict leading up to 9/11 within our own government," he said. "I think it was a situation where both agencies felt that the way they were doing it was right."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2018, with the headline 'New TV show of FBI agent who hunted bin Laden but died in 9/11'. Subscribe