Jeff Daniels embraces complicated hero in Hulu's ambitious 'Looming Tower'

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Jeff Daniels (left) and Tahir Rahim star as FBI agents John O’Neill and Ali Soufan in Hulu’s “The Looming Tower,” a new series based on the Pulitzer-winning book by Lawrence Wright about the events leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks

Jeff Daniels couldn’t see himself in John O’Neill, the dapper, driven FBI agent he plays in Hulu’s The Looming Tower.

He liked that.

“I just didn’t recognize the guy as anything resembling me,” the Emmy-winning star of HBO’s The Newsroom said  after a news conference for the Hulu project last month. Premiering Wednesday on the streaming service, The Looming Tower is adapted from Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the events leading up to the 9/11 attacks. “You start with you, and you pull truth out of you and then put the character on it. You know, inside out. But I didn’t have a clue as to where this guy was inside me, not a clue. And that keeps you interested.”

O’Neill, an Atlantic City native who’d spent years tracking Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, was the book’s tragic hero, destined to become one of the nearly 3,000 people to die  on Sept. 11, 2001, in one of the attacks he’d long sought to prevent. “What happened to him floored me. I mean, you can’t write [fiction like] that, but it happened,” Daniels said.

The series mixes real-life characters, among them O’Neill and Lebanese American FBI agent Ali Soufan (Tahir Rahim), with some said to be composites, including Peter Sarsgaard’s CIA character, Martin Schmidt, and takes other liberties in the name of drama.  “But in terms of understanding the roles that these agencies played and how they tracked al Qaeda at the time, what their successes were and what their failures were, I think that’s pretty accurately presented in the main,” said Alex Gibney, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker who’s one of the show’s executive producers.

O’Neill is portrayed as a larger-than-life presence who butts heads with the CIA over its failure to share information and whose personal life is so complicated that executive producer Dan Futterman told reporters, “We had to winnow out girlfriends in order to make it a comprehensible story.”

“He kept going to the wrong places to try to fix this anger inside of him,” Daniels said of O’Neill, whose ability to charm, and deceive, the women in his life stands in contrast to his inability to keep any part of what he considered the truth to himself while on the job.

“Complete contradiction, yeah. That’s interesting, that’s human in a big way, and that’s what makes him, I think, such a great character,” Daniels said. “They’re both equal, that deception in his personal life and yet righteously carrying the flag all the way to [then-White House counterterrorism adviser] Richard Clarke (Michael Stuhlbarg) and the CIA on his professional side. And he was right on that side, and completely wrong on the other. And he couldn’t stop either one.”

In researching O’Neill’s manner, Daniels said he had only one 1997 Frontline interview to go on.

He told Mark Rossini, a former FBI agent who worked with O’Neill, ” ‘This is not an impression. It’s going to resemble him, but it’s what he thought, and how he thought it, and that you should recognize. And the spirit of him.’ And Mark ended up being very happy with whatever it was he saw,” Daniels said.

“It’s just how I do everything — [Netflix’s] Godless, everything, Newsroom — you think like the guy. Figure out how he thinks, and if there’s some externals, you’ve got to wear a mustache or something, OK. But if you start thinking like him, then maybe people like Mark Rossini will recognize him.”

More than reruns

A few years ago, I’d have expected to see a show like The Looming Tower on HBO or Showtime, not Hulu, the rerun-centric service on which many of my friends are currently binge-watching all 15 seasons of ER.

But it was Hulu, not Netflix or Amazon, that last year became the first streaming service to win the Emmy for outstanding drama, for a series based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale — the second season begins April 25 — and it’s Hulu that recently announced the mini-series Catch-22, an adaptation of the Joseph Heller novel that  George Clooney’s set to direct while playing a supporting role.

Castle Rock, a J.J. Abrams-produced series set in the world of Stephen King, is scheduled to premiere this summer. Hulu’s 2016  mini-series 11.22.63, its most ambitious project up until then, was adapted from King’s novel about a time-traveling high school teacher (James Franco) who tries to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Even Hulu’s Marvel series, Runaways, is one of the better TV shows to come out of that ever-expanding universe lately.

For drama junkies who want a streaming service but aren’t interested in paying for all the streaming services, the rise of Hulu as a place for prestige projects we might once have expected to see only on premium cable doesn’t make choosing any easier.

Feeling overwhelmed? (Or is that just me?)

By now, more than a decade into the streaming revolution, you’d think there would be some way to narrow our subscription choices. But unless you’re interested only in niche programming — say, Acorn or Britbox for viewers who like English accents, or  Shudder for horror lovers — the message seems to be that what we all need is more. Of everything. From everyone.

At this point, Netflix’s output of originals is too overwhelming to be categorized, much less kept up with.

The big-spending home of House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black is also the streaming service trying to out-Hallmark Hallmark with the holiday movie A Christmas Prince. It’s at once the distributor for the truly wonderful remake of Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time and for the cringeworthy Fuller House. In yet another sign that it wants you to be too busy chilling with Netflix to even think about watching anything else, it’s signed exclusive deals with producers Shonda Rhimes (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy) and Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story, Glee) for their future projects.

Whatever curation meant at Amazon Prime Video, another big spender that’s produced its own mixed bag of shows (and last summer signed its own deal with The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman for future projects), the criteria for what gets made — and kept — could be about to change. This month, Amazon announced the hiring of NBC entertainment president Jennifer Salke to replace Roy Price, the Amazon Studios chief who resigned last fall after a sexual-harassment complaint.

The thing that initially made Amazon Prime stand out (besides the two-day shipping) was the model that put pilots up for public consumption and encouraged viewers to vote on which should be picked up, but as Deadline noted last fall, the studio’s been picking up more series without a pilot process, and reports are that it wants to be, as Indiwire recently put it, “the Amazon of streaming services.”

Does that mean it’s going to be focusing less on shows that might get more buzz than viewers — Transparent, for instance — or does it just mean that the company that made it possible for many of us to avoid shopping malls now wants to guarantee that we never leave our homes?

There was good news this month for fans of Bosch, the Michael Connelly detective series that stars Philadelphia’s Titus Welliver, as Amazon ordered a fifth season in advance of the April 13 fourth-season premiere.

There’s nothing about Bosch that screams “Amazon” to me, or even streaming show. It’s a solid detective drama that could be the pride of many a TV network. But if you want to see it, you need Amazon.

And for now, that’s how subscription TV works: It’s show by show. If you want The Handmaid’s Tale or The Looming Tower (and don’t want to wait to see them on DVD), you’ll need Hulu. If you want to see how Game of Thrones ends in 2019, you’ll need HBO.

We have a wealth of great TV these days. We just might need to be wealthy to take advantage of all of it.

The Looming Tower. Feb. 28, Hulu.