TV Review: ‘Manhunt: Unabomber’ on Discovery

Manhunt: Unabomber
Courtesy of Discovery

Ted Kaczynski’s actions weren’t exactly subtle. For decades, Kaczynski — a.k.a. the Unabomber — kept law enforcement and the public on edge by sending explosives through the mail, contraptions that maimed and killed many before he was caught in 1996. His meticulously made packages may not have promulgated the finer points of his anti-technology philosophy, but they certainly worked, as blunt-force instruments, to get him the attention he craved.

A lack of subtlety, however, trips up “Manhunt: Unabomber,” which is frequently flat. Events that viewers are generally aware of can be made suspenseful if the atmosphere and characters contain depth and nuance. Witness the ways in which “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” empathically explored players and controversies we thought we knew but in many ways, did not truly understand.

Unfortunately, the plodding “Manhunt: Unabomber” miniseries often fails to bring its principals to any kind of recognizable or specific life. Early installments cut back and forth between the hunt for Kaczynski, who is played by Paul Bettany, as it heated up in the mid- ’90s, and a series of confrontations the imprisoned Unabomber has before his planned trial. Sam Worthington plays Jim Fitzgerald, a rogue profiler whose unconventional ideas about linguistics analysis helped the FBI find the bomb maker.

“Fitz” and his quarry have much in common — and “Manhunt” never fails to highlight those similarities as emphatically as possible — which is part of the reason the FBI agent was able to think like his prey. But whatever spotty momentum the miniseries is able to build up is undercut by the fact that not only do we know Kaczynski was caught, we see him in jail. There’s no tension derived from the cat-and-mouse chase when the Unabomber sits in a prison cell or an interrogation room for much of the proceedings, quietly heaping scorn on the agents who caught him.

Bettany makes the quiet rage behind Kaczynski’s controlled facade interesting, and there’s no doubt the bomber’s past offers fascinating clues about what led him down such a destructive path. One episode is largely devoted to flashbacks of his time at Harvard University, where questionable psychological research led by an erstwhile mentor left Kaczynski feeling betrayed. But there and elsewhere, “Manhunt” often depicts the bomber’s life crises in predictable ways, without plunging all that far beneath the surface of the character’s psychology.

Far less successful than Bettany’s portrayal is Worthington’s performance as the introverted yet stubborn Fitz. The formulaic dialogue does the scrappy character no favors, and one has to wonder if the attempt to imitate a Philadelphia working-class accent further dulled Worthington’s depiction. But whatever the cause, Fitz, his family and his concerns are generally bland and lack the depth to carry this overlong enterprise. In a cast largely dominated by men, Elizabeth Reaser and Keisha Castle-Hughes are stranded in underwritten roles as Fitz’s wife and partner, respectively.

That said, “Manhunt’s” most persistent flaw might be the way in which the FBI brass, notably via a character played by Jeremy Bobb, is portrayed as clownishly resistant to Fitz’s methods. Task force managers may well have been that unwilling to listen to new ideas. But the way the internal FBI battle is rendered — Fitz’s hunch is right, his bosses won’t listen but he’s proven correct — becomes dramatically inert through repetition.

TV Review: ‘Manhunt: Unabomber’ on Discovery

Miniseries; 8 episodes (4 reviewed); Discovery, Tues. Aug. 1, 9 p.m. 60 min (2-hour premiere).

  • Crew: Executive producers, Greg Yaitanes, Troy Searer, Ross Jacobson, Dana Brunetti, Kevin Spacey, John Goldwyn, Andrew Sodroski.
  • Cast: Sam Worthington, Paul Bettany, Chris Noth, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Jane Lynch, Mark Duplass, Brian d'Arcy James, Elizabeth Reaser, Jeremy Bobb, Brian F. O’Byrne.