‘Manhunt: Unabomber’: Tense Terrorist Drama

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large

A true-crime series with the pacing of a thriller, Manhunt: Unabomber is an ambitious new project for the Discovery network, starring Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind) as Ted Kaczynski, the man who sent numerous, murderous bombs through the mail between 1978 and 1995. Sam Worthington (Avatar) plays Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald, the FBI profiler who, according to this eight-part series, was largely responsible for Kaczynski’s capture.

This true-life tale is centered around Kaczynski, a genius-level eccentric, mathematician, and social misfit who composed a 35,000-word manifesto about the dangers of technology and wanted it published in The Washington Post — and was willing to set off a bomb to achieve its publication. Except for a widely-circulated police sketch of him, Kaczynski eluded identification for years, a period during which the FBI was working intensely to track him down. Much of Unabomber is spent not with Kaczynski but in FBI offices where Fitz tries, often fruitlessly, to convince his superiors that he’s got strong clues about the bomber’s identity. Chris Noth and especially Jeremy Bobb (so good in The Knick) are very skilled as literal-minded bosses who scoff at Fitz’s theories, which were rooted in the then-new concept of forensic linguistics.

It’s tricky to dramatize an investigation devoted to identifying someone based on how they spell various words and on what typewriter they’re using, but showrunner-director Greg Yaitanes (Banshee, Quarry) does a frequently fine job of shooting these evidence-gathering sessions with lots of intensity and suspense — this despite the fact that Worthington isn’t really that compelling as Fitz. Handsome but frequently wearing a blank expression, Worthington’s Fitz doesn’t seem as intelligent as we’re told he is, and during the opening episode — a special two-hour edition — Fitz has the irritating habit of acting like William Petersen in Michael Mann’s Manhunter: talking to himself out loud while examining evidence, as though he’s speaking directly to the criminal. You’re supposed to think what a canny investigator Fitz is, but I was really thinking: This guy has seen too many movies.

Unabomber also has a bit of a woman problem. Fitz’s wife, played by the always-excellent Elizabeth Reaser, gives new meaning to the phrase “long-suffering”: She’s too often reduced to being a fretful housewife who can’t understand why hubby Fitz would rather hunt the Unabomber than spend quality time with her and the kids. It doesn’t help that she is contrasted with a linguistics scholar (played by Lynn Collins) who’s so hubba-hubba you just know she and Fitz are going to have an affair well before this is actually accomplished.

That said, Unabomber is pretty engaging, especially as screen time for Bettany’s Kaczynski increases in subsequent episodes. Bettany makes Kaczynski’s intensity register as deep intelligence gone haywire. The Discovery network is hoping that if Unabomber is a success, it can make the Manhunt rubric an ongoing true-crime-drama franchise. To judge by the positive attention Unabomber is receiving, I think they’ve succeeded.

Manhunt: Unabomber premieres Aug. 1 at 9 p.m. on Discovery.