The Many Projects of Lawrence Wright

From TV to the stage the local writer has been busy

Jeff Daniels (l) and Tahar Rahim (Photo by Jojo Whilden)

The Looming Tower

Hulu series digs into the lead-up to 9/11

September 11 woke the nation to the reality that America is vulnerable. When the planes hit and the towers fell, Americans were confronted with the idea that there are people out there – entire organizations, even – who would joyfully give their lives just to see us eliminated. As Don DeLillo wrote in his essay "In the Ruins of the Future," "We are rich, privileged, and strong, but they are willing to die." The event shaped the way many Americans perceive the Middle East, leading them to lump a portion of the globe and all its inhabitants into one big festering mass of anti-American extremism. From then on, every Middle Easterner at home and abroad would be viewed with suspicion.

This shift in American attitudes since 9/11 has been covered widely, but why the U.S. had become a target of such hatred and how we failed to protect ourselves in the face of it has been far less explored. Hulu's series The Looming Tower, based on Lawrence Wright's award-winning book, pokes at these ideas. It exposes our most prominent intelligence agencies, the CIA and FBI, as so preoccupied with their vicious rivalry and the personal problems of the people running them that the nation's security at the most critical time in history was back-burner. It makes the show a refreshing take on America's role in its tragedy, and the insight is long overdue. Leading men Peter Sarsgaard and Jeff Daniels are so perfectly cast that it's hard to extract yourself from the aftermath of their screen presence. The dialogue is streamlined and at times deliciously vulgar, which feeds into the intensity of the subject and adds authenticity.

That said, the show won't let us forget it's a Hollywood production. It maintains all the hallmarks of a traditional American tale, from the aesthetic of its leading men and their supplemental women to explosions, rooftop pursuits, and an underdog-driven narrative. While the young FBI agent Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim) is an Arabic-speaking Lebanese-American, he is contrasted with his older counterpart Robert Chesney (the fantastic Bill Camp), whose grit and experience make him more interesting than the green Soufan. Adding a Middle Eastern hero is a great move, as it gets tiresome watching white men dominate these roles; still, Soufan left me thinking, "OK, he's cute, but what else?"

All in all, the scenes are fun and well put-together, even if they tend to follow the men-being-men, cops-being-cops template. Footage of an Osama bin Laden interview with ABC's John Miller is riveting, but I found myself wanting a backstory. Including more of the historical context that won Wright a Pulitzer would make the series feel less like an action-movie trailer. His book has such a vast scope and rich detail that it would be near impossible to get that onscreen. But I'd trade a pursuit or two for a more fleshed-out look into the ideology behind the most heinous attack on Americans of our time. – E.B.

Lisa Birnbaum (l) and Richard Short


The making of an epic film – and scandal

Hey, it was just supposed to be one more take on that ancient love affair that folks never seem to get tired of: Cleopatra and Marc Antony. Shakespeare did okay by it and so did G.B. Shaw, and even Hollywood back in 1917 and 1934. What could go wrong?

Oh, how about the leading lady nearly dying, delays in shooting that cost the film its male leads, $7 million blown to get 10 minutes of usable film, the director being fired, production getting shifted to another country, friction among the stars, a script in constant rewrites by the new director, budget overruns in the tens of millions (for a film first budgeted at $2M), the second director being fired only to be rehired for reshoots, and a six-hour first cut. That was the nonstop catastrophe that was Cleopatra, the most titanic (as in THE Titanic) movie of 1963. And at its heart were Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, having an off-camera affair with more sizzle than their characters'. And as both were married, their public coupling brought down on the film scandal, a denunciation from the Vatican, and paparazzi like a plague of locusts.

To an adolescent Lawrence Wright, the sex was what got his attention and fed a fascination with the movie that later in life led him to want to make his own film about that film. In the late Nineties, fresh from his success with The Siege, he considered becoming a film director and set about writing scripts he might direct. One was Cleo. But after 9/11, he set it aside for journalism. "Only after The Looming Tower was published five years later did I return to this project," he said in an interview. "I decided then that it wasn't going to be a movie, nor did I ever want to be a movie director, so I was going to try Cleo as a play. About seven years ago, I hooked up with Bob Balaban, and he has been helping me shape it – he's a wonderful dramaturg."

If Balaban's name rings a bell, it's likely from his fine acting work in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, Christopher Guest's mockumentaries such as Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman, and Gosford Park, which he co-produced. He also directs (Bernard and Doris, Georgia O'Keeffe), which explains why he's staging Cleo's premiere at the Alley Theatre in Houston.

The Alley production, which stars Lisa Birnbaum as Liz and Richard Short as Dick, runs through April 29, Tue.-Thu., 7:30pm; Fri., 8pm; Sat., 2:30 & 8pm; and Sun., 2:30 & 7:30pm, at the Alley's Hubbard Theatre, 615 Texas Ave., Houston. For more information, visit – R.F.

God Save Texas

Book launch

According to Lawrence Wright, it all started when his editor at The New Yorker, David Remnick, asked him to explain Texas, as he couldn't understand why Wright lives here. "I reminded him that I get paid by the word and that's a very big question that he asked me," says Wright. "So that led to a book." In celebration of the April 17 release of that book, God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State, the Texas Book Festival and the Austin Film Festival are hosting a conversation between Wright and AFF Executive Director Barbara Morgan. They will delve into Texas in all of its complicated, contradictory, controversial glory, from its everything-is-bigger-here stereotypes to its boom-and-bust oil economy to its red-meat red state politics.

The event will be Tue., April 17, 7pm, at Central Presbyterian Church, 200 E. Eighth. Tickets are $30, which includes a copy of the book, or $10 general admission. Copies of the book will be available for sale, courtesy of BookPeople. All purchases support Texas Book Festival and Austin Film Festival. – R.F.

  • More of the Story

  • A Good Time to Be Lawrence Wright

    With new book God Save Texas, The Looming Tower series on Hulu, and his play Cleo at the Alley, Lawrence Wright is the man of the moment

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Lawrence Wright, God Save Texas, The New Yorker, John Burnett, WhoDo, Lamberts, Skylark Lounge, Dan Rather, Cleo, Alley Theatre, Bob Balaban, The Looming Tower, Hulu, al Qaeda, Texas Book Festival, Austin Film Festival, Barbara Morgan, Texas Book Festival 2018

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