There’s a voiceover through much of Discovery’s new 8-part miniseries Manhunt: Unabomber that speaks calmly and assuredly about the ills of society. How technology is enslaving us, how we are sheep, and how we willingly allow the government control us so that we become lazy and complacent. It sounds almost identical to the voiceover from Mr. Robot’s de facto hero Elliot, an outsider who mistrusts institutions (and himself). But it is in fact Paul Bettany as Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, reading from his Manifesto, which calls upon the population to wake up and seek out the freedom we deserve.
It’s not that Kaczynski’s ideas were or are all that far-fetched; we’re still, in many ways, idealizing them. Kaczynski’s crime was that he was a domestic terrorist, one who sent bombs through the U.S. postal service for the better part of two decades, shredding or killing those who dared open an innocuous package. One of the primary reasons it took so long for the FBI to zero in on Kaczynski was that there was no common thread among his victims. He was called the Unabomber because he, at first, targeted (Un)iversities and (A)irlines. The key was that Kaczynski was not targeting people but symbols and institutions. He was a man in his 50s living alone in the woods of Montana, completely cut off from society and railing against it, who desperately wanted to be heard. And he was — when his brother read the Manifesto (which was printed in the Washington Post, on the urging of the FBI), he turned him in.
Manhunt: Unabomber focuses on the man who was integral in building the case against Kaczynski, an FBI profiler Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald, whose dogged obsession with the man he would uncover cost him almost everything. There are many moments in Manhunt: Unabomber that feel akin to the relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lector, as two unusually bright minds play (knowingly and unknowingly) a deadly game of chess. Sam Worthington’s Fitz is a boy scout of the highest order, but there is something within him that connects with Kaczynski’s Manifesto. Though his bosses have been focused for almost 17 years on a profile of the Unabomber being an airline mechanic of low intelligence, the talented Fitz builds on another theory: that the Unabomber is extremely intelligent. As Fitz fights against being a cog in the machine, it’s Kaczynski’s words that give him the confidence to push against the system, ironically, to put Kaczynski behind bars.
Fitz was, of course, correct. Kaczynski was a mathematician who went to Harvard at the age of 16, and ultimately wrote a dissertation that could only be understood by a handful of mathematicians in the world. He was also, however, by nature an overly sensitive loner who was emotionally abused by an unethical MK Ultra experiment while at Harvard. But his pride and academic background are ultimately what led Fitz to him, as Fitz analyzed the language of his correspondence and Manifesto so obsessively that he ended up developing a completely new technique that became known as Forensic Linguistics. The Unabomber’s words, which he was so desperate to have the world read and understand, were also a trap of his own making.
Despite the well-known facts of the case, Manhunt: Unabomber is a taught, fast-paced thriller that jumps back and forth in time to explore the many facets (and frustrations) of the investigation. Kaczynski isn’t introduced until the second hour (and the show’s penultimate episode is focused entirely on him), but once he is the story really comes alive. Bettany is spellbinding as the unrepentant killer, both sharp and snake-like, though not entirely unsympathetic in his desire for a normalcy that is out of reach. And yet, the show never glorifies him or shies away from the heinous nature of his crimes. Yet he’s an interesting foil for Fitz, who emerges as a complicated hero: smart, driven, and a more-than-a-little awkward rogue who takes on an establishment.
The series allows its 1990s setting to be an organic aesthetic: the fax machines, the beepers, the dial-up modems are all accents that help illustrate how different the FBI’s job was then than it is now. There are a few short interludes with Janet Reno (played perfectly by Jane Lynch), and reference to other major criminal cases of the day: Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing, Whitewater, as well as are news clips (Brian Williams, Matt Lauer, and others looking incredibly young), and iconic touchstones like that police sketch on the cover of Newsweek. All of this not only contributes to that feeling of familiarity for those who lived through it, but it helps ground the show in something accessible for those who don’t remember the details, or maybe even know about the case at all.
Though many of the show’s secondary characters are a little flat, especially the women, the truly excellent cast (including Chris Noth, Jeremy Bobb, Jay Duplass, and Keisha Castle-Hughes) help mitigate those faltering moments. And to be fair, the show has (character-wise) a very narrow focus and a limited amount of time to tell its story. The Unabomber case was the longest and most expensive FBI investigation in U.S. history, and while Manhunt comes in towards the end, there’s still much to unravel.
As many other cable networks are ramping down some of their expansions into scripted television, Discovery has emerged from the woods, as it were, with this compelling work (while managing to nab A-list film talents). Like any good historical drama, knowing the outcome doesn’t affect ones immersion in the story. Manhunt: Unabomber is a crime thriller that is also a procedural in its purest sense. It investigates the literal process of a case like this, and how things have to go by the books even when the boundaries are stretched. It’s an enormous puzzle, but the series manages to keep things taught and engaging throughout. It’s academic bent is also a little inspiring. What student would ever believe that the careful consideration of spellings and word choice would equal such a tense and compelling experience?
Rating: ★★★★ Very Good
Manhunt: Unabomber premieres Tuesday, August 1st on Discovery.