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Review – Manhunt: Unabomber

Manhunt: Unabomber was originally created by the Discovery Channel to air across their networks in August of 2017. Following its original run on The Discovery Channel, Netflix quickly leapt in and bought the rights to the show and streamed it to the masses in December of the same year, but for some reason (possibly due to the launch of Black Mirror Season Four two weeks later) failed to hype the release enough, making many users unaware of its availability or existence. Despite its subdued debuts on the streaming service, “Manhunt: Unabomber” is everything you could want from a binge-able show, perfect for the holidays.

Manhunt: Unabomber spans eight episodes, roughly 45 minutes each, and tells the true story of James (Jim) Fitzgerald, an FBI detective from the Behavioral Analysis Unit who is recruited in an attempt to capture the notorious Unabomber, a terrorist who mails hand-crafted bombs across America, and has killed 3 people using mail bombs. Fitzgerald uses the letters the Unabomber posted to the FBI, Press and others in an attempt to put the pieces of the crime together and identify the man responsible. Using spelling, phrasing, language and template of the letters sent, as well as the Unabomber’s own manifesto, Fitzgerald develops the field known as forensic linguistics to track and catch the perpetrator.

 The series, directed by Greg Yaitanes (previously directed episodes of House, Lost, Prison Break and Grey’s Anatomy), stars Sam Worthington (Avatar) as Fitzgerald and Paul Bettany (The Avengers) as Ted Kaczynski, inverts the traditional “Who-Dunnit” narrative that many detective shows follow by naming the Unabomber in the first three minutes of the series, and showing Ted (The Unabomber) in jail within the first fifteen minutes. This leaves the viewer slightly confused – I mean, we have the criminal and we have the crime, what more do we need? What we quickly learn is that we need is a guilty plea, and we only have 48 hours to get it.

The series is a character analysis from the off, looking at the reasoning behind the capture, the tools and theories used to convict and start a criminal lawsuit, and, in one of the seasons highlights, procuring a search warrant with nothing but language as proof.  The series looks at the results of Fitzgerald’s obsession with the Unabomber case, and what he had to concede to catch one of the most dangerous terrorists in US history. Paul Bettany delivers one of the standout performances of the show as Ted Kaczynski, successfully showing the intelligence of a man who almost single-handedly brought the FBI to its knees. He portrays Ted as understandable, misunderstood and, eerily, somewhat relatable, a criminal you can both respect and fear at the same time.  On a whole, the series is perfectly paced, with 8 episodes and roughly 8-hours of playtime, perfectly suiting the show, with there never being a point where the story feels rushed and never truly feeling dragged out. There is rarely a scene wasted, with the dialogue explaining everything the viewer could possibly need to know in order to understand the twists and turns of the plot. The real Jim Fitzgerald himself has marked the show as 80% factually accurate.

While the plot centers around Fitzgerald and his use of language as his weapon, it’s the scenes featuring Ted that demand the most praise. The chemistry between Worthington and Bettany provides the crux and axis to which the show revolves. The series as a whole examines the way in which we view technology and its power over the human race. It makes us think twice at every traffic light and wonder what we’d do without our smartphones. It’s as much an examination of this generation as it is of Ted Kaczynski, and as the series heads towards its close you’re left to wonder whether Ted’s theories on technology are truer now than ever before and, if possible, the serial killer we’ve spent the previous 8 hours trying to hate was right.

Expertly directed, perfectly paced but questionably cast at points (could a more experienced actor have done a better job than Worthington did in his portrayal of Fitzgerald?), Manhunt: Unabomber is a hit that has slipped under the radar, and one that is well worth the weekend it will take to complete.