Two of the most dominating images at the end of the 20th century were a police artist’s sketch of a hooded man wearing sunglasses who would be tagged the Unabomber by the FBI and the actual photo of the scruffy man captured for sending bombs to universities and airlines, Ted Kaczynski. They represented the focus of the massively expensive manhunt waged to find the man who mailed and planted bombs across the country from 1978 to 1995.
That story serves as the basis for the Discovery Channel’s latest mini-series, “Manhunt: Unabomber” starring Sam Worthington and Paul Bettany. Through eight episodes, the tale is told of how a new FBI profiler with a knack for linguistics finally helped bring the man who terrorized the nation for 17 years to justice. Writer Andrew Sodroski doesn’t just regurgitate the news coverage and official reports but presents the story as if two intellectual prizefighters were facing off in the ring of public opinion. That approach makes the mini-series a captivating tale of obsession that eventually leads to destruction.
Jim Fitzgerald (Worthington) is a veteran beat cop who has worked his way up to become an FBI profiler. His first assignment is to join the huge FBI task force in San Francisco that has been struggling to catch the Unabomber. Fitzgerald offers radical ideas including the introduction of linguistic forensics that he contends can be used to identify a person simply by the way they use words.
This approach is so alien to the task force members who have spent years chasing down miniscule leads that his efforts are rejected as just a lot of meaningless words. That changes when Ted Kaczynski’s brother (Mark Duplass) and sister-in-law (Katja Herbers) see a similarity between the letters they would receive from Ted and the Unabomber’s manifesto published in the Washington Post.
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The series shows how at the same time Kaczynski’s using words to sell his views through the media, it is those same words that will eventually be the biggest clues to his identity.
Instead of making this a simplistic tale of good finally triumphing over evil, “Manhunt: Unabomber” takes a much deeper look at the similarities of the principle players in this intellectual battle of wills. Both feel like their ideas are not being accepted, they are outcasts among their peers and an all-powerful need to make themselves heard comes at the price of all social ties and family commitments. Both men are broken in their own way.
The real Fitzgerald served as an adviser on the project but he didn’t use his influence to paint himself as a pure hero. The FBI profiler doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions to family, friends and co-workers as long as he stays true to the only thing of importance in his life – stopping the Unabomber.
Comparisons and contrasts of the central players don’t have to wait until the final act because of the clever way the miniseries has been put together. There is a parallel story that looks at events after Kaczynski is caught where he has a series of meetings with Fitzgerald. Each scene is beautiful staged to show how a vicious battle can be fought through only acts of intellect. The scenes between Worthington and Bettany are some of the best and that makes the decision to mix the time periods a superb way to get to those moments earlier in the mini-series.
Such scenes only work with the right players and both Worthington and Bettany answer the challenge. “Manhunt: Unabomber” is a very different role for Worthington whose past works include action heavy productions such as “Clash of the Titans,” “Terminator Salvation” and “Avatar.” He finally gets to show that he can play a character who’s deeply flawed, full of uncertainties and desperate for attention.
Equally good is Bettany, who reveals tiny glimpses of madness in Kaczynski but generally plays him as a man desperate to understand human interaction after living through a life that continuously stripped away any last bits of humanity he had. There’s no hiding that the actions of the Unabomber were horrific, but this miniseries makes him just human enough that he doesn’t end up the cartoonish villain of the tale.
One of the most telling moments comes in the episode where Kaczynski is in his tiny jail cell that has similar dimensions to the shack in the Montana woods where he lived while constructing his bombs and writing his correspondences. Compare this to the scene where Fitzgerald first visits the shack and faces what life will be like now that the driving force of his being has come to an end. Burdens for both men have been lifted but they are still living in very confined worlds.
With “Unabomber,” Discovery Channel executives have taken another page from history – in fact they’ve taken an entire manifesto – in hopes of finding the same success garnered for the cable channel’s 2016 mini-series, “Harley and the Davidsons.” That production examined the industrial growth in America through the creation and development of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. It’s interesting how that offering showed the growth of the nation through industrial development, while the cable channel’s latest mini-series focuses on a man who believed industrial growth has had a negative impact on personal freedoms.
The philosophies are at opposite ends of the political spectrum but they are linked by how these messages are being presented as a project first designed to entertain and then make the viewer think. This collision of fact and fiction generates a few creative wrinkles in “Manhunt: Unabomber” – such as how the real Fitzgerald was not nearly as confident the writings of Kraczinski and the Unabomber were a perfect match. All this means is that while some liberties were taken, the heart and tortured soul of the story is true.
The producers do hedge their bets by saying up front this miniseries is “based” on a true story. This is not a documentary but a theatrical work that depends on high tension moments. The result is a mesmerizing look at a story that once dominated the news but now comes across as being told from a fresh perspective through a deeper examination of the power of words.
4 out of 4 stars
9 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 1, Discovery Channel