After its breakthrough with "The Handmaid's Tale," Hulu still has a way to go in proving that it's a regular big-league player. The streamer takes a step in that direction with "The Looming Tower," a crisp adaptation of Lawrence Wright's book about crippling pre-Sept. 11 bureaucracy, and less so with "Hard Sun," a British thriller that dawns close on its heels.
Distinguished from the get-go by its topnotch cast, "The Looming Tower" includes episodes directed by documentarian Alex Gibney, which perhaps helps explain the raw, verite style that it brings to tackling the intramural squabbling between Clinton-era intelligence agencies.
From a law-enforcement perspective, this 10-part look at missed opportunities is less a whodunit than a "Why didn't?," in terms of officials who saw the mounting threat but were unable to stop it from reaching US shores.
Jeff Daniels stars as John O'Neill, leader of the counter-terrorist I-49 Squad, who is intent on stopping Al-Qaeda. Toward that end he dispatches agent Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim) on a mission to London, where his local contact dismisses Osama bin Laden and his followers as criminals who should be dealt with as such.
"You're underestimating them," Soufan says.
The bigger challenge, however, stems from internal discord, turf wars and Clinton's reluctance to take decisive action, presiding over agencies that refuse to talk to each other. At one point, the CIA's Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard) -- who expresses complete indifference to collateral damage in the form of civilian casualties -- cheers the prospect of impeachment proceedings, thinking that the White House will crave a "wag the dog"-type distraction that might actually lead to greenlighting a strike.
Like any fact-based spy thriller, this one suffers a bit from knowing the outcome. But "The Looming Tower" is really about the process and terse interaction between key players, which, beyond those mentioned, includes the ubiquitous Michael Stuhlbarg as national security adviser Richard Clarke, Alec Baldwin as CIA chief George Tenet and Bill Camp as a grizzled agent operating abroad.
Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning book was meant to be infuriating, and "The Looming Tower" (under the stewardship of producer Dan Futterman) conveys that -- the idea that people were so embroiled in advancing their aims and covering their flanks that they refused to work together in a way that might have averted tragedy.
In many respects, "The Looming Tower" feels like a throwback miniseries, using the format to develop Wright's book with greater detail than a movie would have allowed. And if it's not exactly "The Handmaid's Tale" in terms of cultural resonance, this first-class project is still a tale well worth telling.
"Hard Sun," by contrast, feels like something of an afterthought, a provocative premise that gets bogged down in subplots.
The main storyline is certainly arresting, with a couple of mismatched detectives (played by Jim Sturgess and Agyness Deyn) stumbling upon information that suggests an apocalyptic, mass-extinction event is in the offing, one that shadowy forces will do anything to prevent from becoming public.
After that, though, the six-episode series -- created by Neil Cross, best-known stateside for the BBC's equally gritty "Luther" -- takes detours into crimes vaguely tethered to the larger conspiracy. If the world is indeed on the verge of ending, to quote the kid in "Annie Hall" when he learns that the universe is expanding, "What's the point?"
The episodes are watchable enough, but for all its edge and angst, the show plays like the more over-the-top mythology arcs on "The X-Files."
Cross keeps sprinkling just enough crumbs from hour to hour to provoke curiosity about where the show's orbit will finally lead. Still, the bottom line is even if you have all the time in the world, it's hard to make an unqualified case for committing a chunk of it to "Hard Sun."
"The Looming Tower" and "Hard Sun" premiere Feb. 28 and March 7, respectively, on Hulu.
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