Manhunt: Unabomber

Like National Geographic and History, Discovery has been stepping up its scripted drama output.

The first was last year’s Harley and the Davidsons. The latest is Manhunt: Unabomber, an 8 part drama about the chase to catch serial bomber Ted Kaczynski. He was responsible for sending seemingly-random parcel bombs across America from 1978 to 1995, killing 3 people, and injuring 23 more. While those stats may pale beside news events this week from the US, there was nevertheless a fear he could strike anywhere at anytime.

The ‘UNABOMBER,’ as he became known, was so named for his obsession with targeting Universities and Airlines. This drama, which notes Kevin Spacey as one of the executive producers, includes former FBI profiler James Fitzgerald as a consultant.

Australia’s Sam Worthington stars as Fitzgerald, the man who would eventually finger Kaczynski before later turning author (he was also an on-air consultant on The Case of: Jon Benet Ramsey and tech advisor to Criminal Minds).

The saga, created by Andrew Sodroski (Holland Michigan) and directed by Greg Yaitanes (Quarry, Banshee), takes place across two timelines, 1995 and 1997. This facilitates a before / after tale in which ‘Fitz’ is seconded to the Unabomber case, and who later faces him behind bars to try and elicit a guilty verdict. What unravels for us as audience is the all-important capture.

In 1995 ‘Fitz’ is father to a young family, but lured to the case by Divisional Head of the FBI Don Ackerman (Chris Noth) & Task Force lead Stan Cole (Jeremy Bobb). Despite Fitz’s reluctance, Ackerman impresses upon him the FBI’s lack of success in nailing hard clues.

“I need somebody who sees things differently and like it or not that’s you,” he says.

‘Fitz’ is teamed with street Agent Tabby Milgrim (Keisha Castle-Hughes) where he rails against the internal system to abandon profiles based on false perceptions. By trying to throw out current profiling, he hopes to wipe the slate clean and uncover new clues. No question, ‘Fitz’ shows an ability to think laterally, and get inside the mind of the killer.

Fast forward to 1997 and a reclusive ‘Fitz’ is again lured back by Ackerman, this time to confront Kaczynski (Paul Bettany) in prison. By trying to elicit a guilty plea, the FBI hopes to avoid a celebrity trial, giving him a public platform. But for ‘Fitz’ it means facing his own demons and finding “Answers for myself so I can understand what happened to me. Where I should go from here?”

Bringing the mastermind prisoner before his captor, surrounded in deeply, personal questions, creates a kind of Silence of the Lambs parallel.

This is a solid true crime with Worthington turning in a measured, driven performance that helps lift it above crime-of-the-week procedurals. Watching him think outside the square, bristling against the formulaic Cole (Bobb) and tugging at his family ties, Worthington creates a smart and sympathetic hero. Yet his flaws, evident in the later sequences, add depth.

‘Fitz’ doesn’t confront Kaczynski until after the first episode, but clearly Bettany has the other key role here as the brilliant mind of a killer, while Keisha Castle-Hughes and Chris Noth are key supports. Jane Lynch, Michael Nouri, Brian d’Arcy James and Mark Duplass will also feature.

The juxtaposition of the two timelines can sometimes be frustrating, some sequences are too brief, and a 2 year time difference is not much for the viewer to distinguish. There were also some gratuitous grisly shots of burnt victims, albeit dramatic representations.

But I wouldn’t be surprised to see some nominations for this miniseries, which could open to a Manhunt anthology for Discovery, dramatising other cases. This will air as double episodes across 4 weeks, and after watching Episode 1 I can happily report I dived straight into Episode 2.

Begins 8:30pm Thursday October 5 on Discovery.

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