TV Review: ‘Manhunt: Unabomber’

Review by David Ferguson

The line between Reality TV and traditional scripted series is officially blurred. On August 1, Discovery Channel will begin airing an 8 episode anthology that provides the backstory of the Unabomber and the unprecedented resources the FBI devoted to the investigation and manhunt from 1978 to 1996. Billed as “Based on True Events”, the latest from Producer and Showrunner Greg Yaitanes (“House”, “Banshee”, “Quarry”) delivers some impressive TV tension through a talented cast and a fascinating and tragic true story that gripped the country for nearly two decades.

Mr. Yaitanes also directs all 8 episodes, and perhaps it’s his consistent approach that allows Sam Worthington (Avatar) to deliver his best and most believable performance as Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald, the FBI profiler and language expert assigned to the case. Of course, as you would expect, the most interesting character is Ted Kaczynski. A child prodigy, Harvard educated, socially misfit smartest guy in the room, Kaczynski at times seems to tease or make fun of the FBI and their futile attempts at tracking him down. Paul Bettany (a Brit) is terrific and terrifying as the wild-eyed, extremely quiet recluse who uses mail bombs to attack those he holds responsible for the technology takeover.

We see Fitz as an “old” FBI rookie who spent years as a beat cop, and never really excelled as a family man (his very supportive and patient wife is played by Elizabeth Reaser). His talents as a profiler are through language and it’s quite interesting to watch the progression of what he labels “Forensic Linguistics” – in an effort to gain respectability within an organization that only places value on hard evidence. Worthington initially portrays Fitz as an eager and nervous puppy overly anxious to prove himself to his superiors (played by Chris Noth and Jeremy Bobb). As time passes, he goes through periods of confidence, professional disgrace, reclamation, and finally as a victim of the self-centeredness so pervasive in a bureaucratic morass.

The UNABOM task force is explained, as is the enormous pressure to track down and stop the Unabomber. Over the years, his 16 bombs resulted in 3 deaths and 23 injuries. It was the largest and longest manhunt in FBI history, and might not have ended without the assistance of Kaczynski’s brother David (Mark Duplass). Much of the investigative procedural will likely surprise those who thought it ended simply after David ‘turned him in’, and most will be surprised at just how much tension can occur with little more than a conference room and white board.

Be prepared for bouncing between timelines. The segments include numerous FBI meetings, a tense meeting with Attorney General Janet Reno (Jane Lynch), interrogations of Kaczynski by Fitz, the uncertainty of what to make of the Unabomber Manifesto (“Industrial Society and its Future), and the stress of needing an admission of guilt to prevent the uncertainty of a jury trial.

It’s impossible not to make the comparison with Silence of the Lambs when Fitz interviews Kaczynski … more proof that the good guys aren’t always the smart ones. It’s Episode 6 that provides the backstory and profile of Kaczynski. In Lincoln, Montana (his infamous cabin is located nearby) we note he is friendly (quite ironically) with the local mailman, as well as helpful to the librarian and her math-challenged son. Through the letters to his brother and mother, we learn how his childhood, education, and Harvard psychological study impacted his later severe reaction to societal changes. He felt betrayed too many times, and admits that his “life was not supposed to go like this”. Fitz later experienced some similar type betrayals.

Other notables in the supporting cast include Lynn Collins, Keisha Castle-Hughes (15 years after Whale Rider), and Michael Nouri as Bob Guccione. Despite the inclusion of a few clichés, there is a feature film style to much of the series, and it is certainly an impressive entry from the network best known for “Shark Week”. No matter how much you remember about the capture of the Unabomber, you’ll learn a bit about how the FBI works and what was behind this reign of terror.

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