For fans of the near-faultless Mindhunter (voted best TV show of 2017 by VODzilla.co’s critics – see the full list here), Manhunt: Unabomber makes an ideal companion piece, similarly depicting a time when law enforcement made revolutionary strides in its detection techniques. While Mindhunter focuses on profiling those individuals we now term “serial killers”, Manhunt takes place 15 years later and focuses on how the infamous Unabomber was brought to book due to the emerging field of “forensic linguistics”.
The Unabomber case is as grimly enthralling now as it was when he was at large. Though technically a serial killer, he’s far from the crazed psychopaths Mindhunter focuses on, not least because his chosen weapon of choice was the letter bomb. Between 1978 and 1995, via devices that were as meticulously constructed as they were lethal, the Unabomber killed three people, and maimed 23 others. His victims were chosen apparently at random, but his letters to newspapers hinted at an all-encompassing hatred of modern society, which meant the FBI made little headway – until Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington, best known as Sully in Avatar and its imminent sequels) joined the task force.
That the manhunt is ultimately successful is no spoiler, as the show sets out its stall in its opening minutes – showing us Ted Kaczynski, aka. the Unabomber (brilliantly portrayed by Paul Bettany), in a maximum security prison in 1995. Worried Kaczynski is going to plead innocent – which will mean a prolonged trial that could result in a ‘not guilty’ verdict on grounds of insanity – the FBI call in Fitz, whose work led to Kaczynski’s arrest. Fitz, we surmise, lost everything to the case and lives alone in a cabin in the woods, separated from his wife, kids and colleagues.
From this opening, the show flits back and forth in time. We see Fitz, a rookie agent brought onto the Unabomber task force, becoming convinced the key to the case lies in analysing the peculiar idiolect contained in letters the murderer sends to newspapers. Faced with the FBI’s ossified bureaucracy, he’s isolated, even ridiculed, and his ultimate vindication comes – as is slowly revealed – at great personal cost.
Back in 1995, in scenes informed by those depicting the case unfolding, the duel between Fitz and the killer intensifies, as it becomes apparent that Kaczynski not only intends to plead innocent but, by calling into question Fitz’s linguistic work, stands a good chance of walking free.
The build-up to Kaczynski’s arrest is equally gripping, as task force leader Don Ackerman (Chris Noth, Sex and the City’s Mr Big, on scintillating form) wrangles feuding agents while navigating a political climate informed by the disaster that was Waco in 1993. Bill Clinton’s Attorney General Janet Reno, played by Jane Lynch, makes a pivotal appearance in which her regret over the decisions she made that day act as a warning to Ackerman; get it wrong, and this will be his legacy.
The story also takes us back into Kaczynski’s past. A bona fide genius with an IQ of 167, he enrolled at Harvard to study mathematics aged just 16, where he became the unwitting guinea pig for a CIA-funded investigation into mind-control. The psychological trauma he suffered doesn’t excuse his crimes, but perhaps makes the US government complicit in them. “My life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this,” Kaczynski says, as the FBI’s net closes in around him. And we’re left with the gnawing suspicion that he’s as much a victim as the people he killed and disfigured.
It is in this complexity that Manhunt: Unabomber truly shines. Kaczynski’s objections to the dehumanising effects of our technologically-dependent society are valid, and we’re left to guess as to the extent to which Fitz’s sympathy for the killer is genuine, and how much it’s exaggerated to win Kaczynski’s trust. The line between the two is deliciously murky and the viewer, like Fitz, will never be quite sure which side of it they’re on.
A respectful and thoughtful exploration of one of the darkest chapters in recent American history, Unabomber is utterly gripping. Subtly written, brilliantly plotted and boasting an outstanding cast, it’s an outstanding piece of drama.
Manhunt: Unabomber is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.