– MANHUNT: UNABOMBER [Series Review] –
Manhunt: Unabomber released on August 2017 is a drama miniseries directed by Greg Yaitanes for the Discovery Network. Created by Andrew Sodroski, Jim Clemente & Tony Gittelson the series was nominated for the best original long form TV award by the Writer’s Guild of America and Tyler Huth for young Best Performance in a TV Series (Recurring Teen Actor) by the Young Artist Award. Sam Worthington plays FBI agent Jim ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald and Paul Bettany the titular character Ted Kaczynski and are supported by co-stars Jeremy Bobb, Chris Noth and Keisha Castle-Hughes.
Discovery and Yaitanes take certain creative license in an attempt to create a historical drama narrative about the FBI manhunt focusing on the cat-and-mouse dynamic between Kaczynski and his pursuer Agent ‘Fitz’. I feel while the show is entertaining and has you coming back to see what’s happens next, it did not really give the characters enough depth and failed to adequately link Kazcynski’s fears of misuse of industrial and technological advances to the reality of current issues and events which seems to be going in that direction.
The show focuses on how the tactics and technology used to track down Kazcynski came to be, demonstrating that previous methods failed and illustrating classic bureaucracy present even at the FBI’s highest levels of administration hindering efficiency and development of best practices. They touch on the creation and content of the manifesto itself but from a safe distance, not really expounding on the obvious correlations between Kazcynski’s theories rising from fear of the future and what has happened in the meanwhile to society due to reckless and hasty implementations of various technologies and industrial practices. Possibly things like certain major companies online always listening, increasingly watching and constantly learning about you and your habits? Was this idea really so crazy, as opposed to going deeper through the content of the manifesto and rationale of this criminal we merely get a glimpse into what maybe led him to become the way he was. There are notable manhunts the team could have chose to develop as opposed to one where beyond the tragic crimes perpetrated there is present a fleshed out philosophy and viewpoint of the ‘villain’.
The series starts off in 1995 as Fitz is recruited to the Unabomb Task Force receiving no support from his colleagues regarding new ideas he brings to the table. Also we flash-forward to 1997 where he is being asked to confront his counterpart Kazcynski.
The second episode focuses on Fitz’s work on determining the validity of the Unabomber’s threat to bomb an airliner and also we have the two enemies meet for the first time.
Fitz teams up with linguist Natalie Rogers, played by Lynn Collins, together figuring out new clues which point in a different direction to the current profile but the FBI views the findings sceptically. In 1997 Ted begins explaining to his opponent Fitz that he will invalidate all the evidence produced against him.
Ted now demands that his manifesto be published if the authorities wish to see and end to the bloodshed. Fitz pushes his boss Don Ackerman, played by Chris North, to publish who decides to bring the proposal to FBI Divisional head Janet Reno played by Jane Lynch.
Agent Fitz fianlly finding the linguistic evidence he’d been looking for which points in the direction of Ted Kazcynski, tracks down Ted’s brother David, played by Mark Duplass, who is surprised at how precise the profile seems to match Ted.
The sixth episode focuses on a letter sent to David by his brother where he explains various events of his life which caused him to take up his current world view and engage in terrorist activities.
The bureau having a prime suspect goes deep under cover staking out Kazcynski’s cabin, racing the press cycle in hopes of capturing Ted before media chaos ensues creating opportunity for missteps on their end.
In the season finale, after Ted fails to have the evidence invalidated by the court, Fitz makes one last appeal for him to plead guilty.
I felt that Fitz as a character is relatable to a degree albeit riddled with cliches. Older than most his class and less educated, he earned his spot through old fashion elbow grease which I feel does endear the character the audience. His ideas though are met with low levels of enthusiasm and finds himself battling dated established conventions. Here the cliché begins, becoming so obsessed with the case it causes his marital breakup. Fit’z obsession believable grows to such an extent that he sells out his only true ally Tabby, played by Keisha Castle-Hughes, in an attempt to get back on the case.
Despite the afore mentioned you find yourself hoping that Fitz wins. The show did attempt to illustrate that Kazcynskis ultimate goal wasn’t to sow terror but bring the public’s attention to inherent risks of the technological and industrial progress. Beyond explaining Ted’s motives the show also provides possible causes for this extreme behaviour illuminating parts of his troubled childhood and youth in a ‘monsters aren’t born they are made’ approach.
I feel the purpose of this show was for Discovery Network to determine whether they can create a commercially viable scripted drama a now prestigious segment of the television entertainment market.
The show itself is rather cinematic and this is in no small part thanks to Zack Galler. The camera movement was precise, angles well thought out as well as were the distances of the shots.
The sound of the series was good, playing well with the narration of the story being told, and the score was solid both primarily courtesy of Gregory Tripi. Especially praiseworthy is how the sound greatly contributed to the few set pieces of the series.
One possible deeper meaning the team could have been trying for is a character study of both Kazcynski and Fitz, but they fail in this task as the characters seemingly lack depth. To be far Fitz is a composite of several different agents, and the real Jim Fitzgerald insisted on the show being more accurate but was ultimately overruled.
What could be seen as the shows argument regarding modernism and possible risks inherent in technological progress is grossly weakened which I will explain further in this review.
The show does do well with the ethical dillemas presented by the deciding on giving in to the demands of the Unabomber.
There is some repetitiveness throughout the show specifically – Fitz gets stuck, listens to someone talk about something unconnected, zones out and then makes a lateral leap based off a small slice of conversation after which he goes to his boss with the idea and is told to focus on what they tell him to do, for the boss to proven wrong.. That said Noth and Bobb serve the story solidly as the stubborn obstacles of the protagonist.
Bettany’s portrayal is praiseworthy and in truth the show doesnt get things cooking properly until his arrival on the scene, and he is great in episode six where the story be given to him we learn of his experiences at Harvard.
On the other hand despite his masterful subtle delivery, you find Worthington as Bettany wanting more from there characters and script. Fitz’s character is intended to be Kazcynskis match, but we can find a correlation between Fitz’s awkwardness and lack of niceties evidence his compulsive personality, Barring this what really bothers is how the team fail to rationalize the notion they convey early in the series that Fitz managed to catch Kazcynski because of a shared obsessive world-view as they do not deepen the character portrayal.
The supporting cast complete the show and are probably one of the highlights, especially the a fore mentioned Castle-Hughes is a standout, Duplass, Brian d’Arcy James and Jane Lynch feel somewhat underplayed and underdeveloped but none the less handle their assignments as the seasoned professionals they are.
In closing I feel that both lead actors despite their visibly high levels of commitment were left wanting more to work with in regards to their characters. There is some awkwardness inherent in the beginning of the show, though tension steadily builds, but they manage to build momentum as it progresses.
Manhunt definitely makes it hard to not continue watching as it does engage the viewers and the fact it is based on real people and events (albeit creative license was used) makes it all the more enthralling.
A major failing of the series is we never really get to know Ted Kazcynski or what makes him tick. But by far the biggest mistake they made was failing to deliver on the key argument I mentioned earlier in this review. Something starring you in the face is that we now know (at least most of us) that Kazcynski’s deep paranoia in regards to the dehumanizing side of technology in the modern era being not only sociologically ahead of his time but is also almost certainly correct.
All being said this is one of the best shows produced in recent years, it is engaging, tense and hard to not binge watch. The writers approached this series a little differently than most, the direction is efficient and Bettany does provide an intense portrayal of the titular character. This all might sound paradoxical considering the gripes listed and explained but that is because this a a very good show which could have been a great show.
This show will be most appealing to criminal history buffs and those who enjoy criminal procedurals or process themed series.
I give this series a score of