TV Review — Manhunt: Unabomber (2017)

There was a man, there was hunting, there was a una, there was bombing. That’s more or less the story of us all, isn’t it? But for those of us who value a more detail oriented approach to the human condition, FBI Special Agent James R. Fitzgerald and Professor Theodore J. Kaczynski are on hand, ready, willing, and able to venture forth into unknown frontiers in search of the answer to that most fundamental of questions, one that has haunted man since the time of Plato: should unas be bombed? But of course I’m joking, ha ha ha. Count the laughs, measure the mirth. Manhunt: Unabomber is the story, in a manner of speaking, of how an experimental linguistic approach to criminal investigation saw perhaps the most infamous domestic terrorist in modern US history caught, serving multiple life sentences in solitary confinement in an administrative maximum security prison.

While most people have heard of Ted Kaczynski, the titular Unabomber, and most people know more or less what his deal is, I might as well indulge in a little padding so I can feel better about my meagre efforts in writing this. Kaczynski’s life is more or less characterised by his inability to feel at home in modern society, whether at Harvard, which he attended at the age of sixteen as a child prodigy in mathematics, or in his assistant professorship at UC Berkeley, which he suddenly resigned after just two years in 1969. In the early 1970s he began living self-sufficiently in the woods of Montana, where gradually he became convinced of the effectiveness of letter writing campaigns. Over the course of almost two decades, he sent sixteen bombs to various academic and industrial figures, all with the eventual aim of having his long-form essay “Industrial Society and its Future” (popularly known as the “Unabomber Manifesto”), in which he espouses an anarchistic, anti-technology, ecologically sound way of living, published by a major newspaper, in exchange for which he promised that he would cease his terrorist activities. Ultimately this led to his arrest, after his brother David recognised Kaczynski’s ideas and writing style and sent a tip to the FBI.

The show dramatises more or less the whole of Kaczynski’s life in bits and pieces, and he is by far the best thing in it. While its attempts to make him compelling and even sympathetic often fall flat, because the show is simply too ensnared in a run of the mill programme of police procedural antics, Paul Bettany’s portrayal of Kaczynski is in itself terrific to watch, frequently elevating the cutesy script, occasionally finding anchorage in the deep waters of pathos. Bettany wrenches what complexity he can out of the scenes he has, and it’s unfortunate that out of the entire eight episode run he has so little to actually do. Since so much of the show is told from the perspective of his nemesis, FBI profiler James Fitzgerald, and set predominantly within the bureaucracy of the UNABOM task force, it makes sense that we don’t spend that much time in the direct company of the Unabomber himself, and yet Fitz, as he is most commonly referred to by his colleagues, is a mediocre character whose psychological links with Kaczynski, the slim dramatic meat of which the show hopes to make a substantial meal, are as fragile as the paper their concomitant dialogue was printed on. It is no coincidence, then, that the best episode of the series centres entirely on Kaczynski qua Kaczynski, framed in a letter of reminiscence that Ted writes to his brother.

The script attempts to present Fitz, who is not the real James R. Fitzgerald but a heavily edited and augmented construction bearing his name, as a highly intelligent but insecure outsider who has some difficulties with authority and feels that he is underappreciated by his superiors, a man similar to Ted Kaczynski himself. When Fitz, who for his insistence that linguistic clues to the Unabomber’s identity are the best, indeed only way forward, begins to be perceived as being disruptive of official Bureau business, is taken off the taskforce, he begins working regular hours and is able to spend more time with his family, but he finds himself distracted and increasingly alienated from them. In one scene, Fitz lies awake in bed, unable to sleep due to his awareness of a buzzing electric street light outside his house, he goes outside and trains his service weapon on the light before ultimately resisting the urge to shoot it out. This scene is the first in which the show attempts to sell us on the idea that Kaczynski is inside Fitz’s head, and that Fitz is sympathetic to Kaczynski’s ideas about the harm that industrialisation has done to humanity. The amount of tension the show tries to build out of Fitz’s apparent inner turmoil over this development is not at all commensurate with the actual information we are given, which is essentially that Fitz is annoyed by lights, not just street lights but, quelle horreur, traffic lights and the way they control us by making it safe to cross the road and so forth. By introducing Fitz to us in 1998, two years after Kaczynski’s arrest, as a man who has himself retired to a small cabin to live simply and self-sufficiently, the show avoids the comedy that would have resulted from a chronologically linear plot, wherein the much put-upon profiler is driven so mad by electric lights that he simply can’t stands no more, and, after munching down a tin of spinach, puts his mightily and meatily embiggened forearms to work building a refuge out in the wilderness.

While it would be easy to take a passing glance at Hollywood tough guy Sam Worthington and sneeringly find executive fault, his efforts are not at all the problem with Fitz. Worthington in fact does a commendable job with the character, building an understated presence through a small, well observed suite of verbal and physical tics. A physically imposing actor, he plays small within the sprawling city of computer desks that makes up the home base for the FBI’s most intensely watched taskforce, and convinces as the underdog trying to convince his superiors to take a chance on his unique perspective with appreciable nuance. But the script is too surface level to support Worthington’s efforts. While it can occasionally thrill with plot surprises, as in the scenes leading up to Kaczynski’s trial, there is so little in the script that convinces on its own, meaning that the characters—so far as they can impress themselves upon the audience as characters—are more or less what the actors bring to the role. With the exception of Fitz and Kaczynski, what we have left to us is a cast of characters bought wholesale from the annals of 2000s police procedurals, all-business tough talkers whose tongues are never not in thrall to the dictates of an unwritten but osmotic style guide, spitting one-liners so slick that they hit the camera and leave a cold and viscous grease trail as they slide down the screen.

The cheapness of much of the supporting cast’s and indeed main cast’s script, the verbal environment in which Fitz and by extension we operate, is at odds with the show’s high production value, surprisingly high when you consider that it was commissioned by, of all things, the Discovery Channel. The series features several well done reconstructions of the Unabomber’s attacks. The first of these attacks occurred in 1978, but Kaczynski has maintained in his own correspondence that his decision to begin making bombs and mailing them out came in 1983, when he found a new road had been built by his favourite camping site, which he regarded as an aggressive invasion of his own way of life by the technological society he had rejected. The impact of these bombs varied from minor flesh wounds to loss of limbs, blindness, deafness, and ultimately death. Towards the end of his campaign, Kaczynski had near enough perfected the design for a lethal bomb, and most of the last few of his targets were killed outright. The reconstructions do not shy away from the bloody aftermath of the explosion, and credit must go to the effects crew, who did a magnificently convincing job of detailing the carnage wreaked by these bombs. I can only imagine they, like practical effects workers of the good old days of silicone, chicken guts, and jelly, had a great deal of fun making up the grim spectacle of a shuddering body pierced with long shards of shrapnel. Such shots as these, though tastefully brief, do more to convey the horror and inhumanity of Kaczynski’s actions than the script itself can even begin to muster.

I have debated with myself (and I’m sure your mind can supply a suitable prefix to form a relevant homophone there) whether to delve into the many allegations of historical inaccuracy levelled against the show, such as those of former FBI agent Greg Stejskal, who worked the UNABOM case, and even Kaczynski himself, who, though he admits having not seen the show, has received plenty of correspondence about it, and says that what he has read about it amounts to “bull manure”. I could point out also that the real James Fitzgerald, who did consult for the production, disputes Stejskal’s account with great vehemence, but ultimately I think that, regardless of its fidelity to the truth of the events upon which it is more or less based, any drama ultimately stands or falls on simple artistic merit, which in fact is not simple at all, but for the sake of brevity let’s pretend that it is. I see Manhunt: Unabomber as a frustrating viewing experience, because I can see the potential for a really gripping story about two opposed but similar characters lurking in the periphery of what’s there, but that potential is bound so heavily by the workaday writing and overly generic trappings of the often sumptuous production that the two most compelling elements, the performances of Worthington and especially Bettany, can’t hope to break out and illuminate the screen with the fullness of brilliance to which they might otherwise have attained. And with that, yeronner, the prosecution rests.

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