Created by Andrew Sodroski. Starring Sam Worthington, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Bobb, Chris Noth, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Brían F. O’Byrne. Runs for 8 episodes of 40-50 minutes.
Manhunt: Unabomber is the latest Netflix miniseries to set social media alight with unreserved recommendations and gushing praise. This is almost certainly due in part to the fact that we have just exited the Christmas season; the increasingly desperate boredom that comes with being trapped indoors for days on end is sure to elicit grateful (and therefore positive) responses to any form of passable entertainment. Or so goes my theory. It certainly explains why people still watch Titanic.
There is plenty to recommend Manhunt: Unabomber ahead of James Cameron’s groaning epic. It’s a small bit longer, for one thing, and the dialogue is much less awful. Also, Brían F. O’Byrne’s American accent is infinitely better than DiCaprio’s horrendous attempt at an Irish one.
The plot concerns the true story of the titular Unabomber (a scarcely recognisable Paul Bettany), an American terrorist whose real name was Ted Kaczynski. Kaczynski killed three people and injured 23 others in a terror campaign that spanned almost two decades. His method of choice, as the name suggests, was bombing.
The story’s main focus is on the FBI’s efforts to track Kaczynski down, particularly those of Jim ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington), a criminal profiler. His submissions on the construction of the Unabomber’s profile, which are repeatedly dismissed by his superiors (Bobb, Noth), transpire to be largely accurate and are instrumental in Kaczynski’s eventual capture.
We are introduced to Kaczynski in the second episode, in the first of a series of flash-forwards which detail the preamble to his trial in 1998, two years after his apprehension. Formerly a brilliant mathematician, Kaczynski began his terror campaign in protest against the proliferation of technology in modern society.
The subject matter is fascinating, and aside from the necessary dramatization the series seems to reflect it quite accurately. Unfortunately, it works somewhat better as a documentary than as a drama. Something of a conflict emerges between the story’s two strands; the fact that Kaczynski’s identity is revealed early on mitigates the effectiveness of the actual manhunt in compelling the viewer. Different suspects and theories feature in the earlier episodes, but our knowledge of them to be incorrect renders them largely useless as plot devices.
It has been noted that the character of Fitz is cobbled together from more than one real-life operative, and that the real James Fitzgerald was not as involved in the case as the show suggests. Perhaps because of this, and despite the (largely uninspiring) insights we are given into his love life, Fitz comes across more as a storytelling tool than an engaging protagonist. Sam Worthington’s pedestrian performance doesn’t help matters.
Ted Kaczynski, on the other hand, is a cracking villain. His disturbed worldview is communicated with startling eloquence, and Paul Bettany breathes life into him with understated, softly spoken brilliance. The sixth episode deals solely with his background, allowing us to depart temporarily from a manhunt story which has by then become somewhat formulaic. It is tragic and disturbing in equal measures, and is almost certainly the series’ highlight.
A couple of references are made to the OJ Simpson murder case (which took place not long before Kaczynski’s capture) throughout the series. It is somewhat ironic that The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story (also available on Netflix) is a comfortably superior miniseries to this. Nonetheless, there is plenty to like about Manhunt: Unabomber, and it pulls the same kind of “true crime” strings, if that’s what you’re into.