“Betrayal after betrayal after betrayal. Until I couldn’t trust anyone. I want them to listen to me. I want them to pay for what they did to me. Well, let them hate me… They WILL NOT ignore me.”
-Ted Kaczynksi, as played by actor Paul Bettany in the new Discovery Channel series, Manhunt: Unabomber.
It’s funny: I consider myself a diehard history buff, but I also feel like I avoid being more aware about current events. It seems like the older the subject, the more comfortable I would feel if engaged in an intelligent discussion on the subject without looking uninformed and ignorant. Sometimes I feel like current events are nothing more than current events and not worth my time. I was wrong about that
Until, of course, I had an inside look at something that happened fairly recently, although so much has changed over the past 20-odd years (most, sadly, have not been for the better in this guy’s opinion, but that’s a different story entirely).
I had the chance to get an advance peek at the upcoming miniseries, Manhunt: Unabomber (see the trailer above) by our friends at the Discovery Channel. And as I stated, I really didn’t know a damn thing about this story until I watched most of the episodes that will air in the coming months (it premieres on Aug. 1)
Here’s what I claim to remember about Ted Kaczynksi (AKA The Unabomber): His crazy mugshot and playoff hockey-style beard, his being taken down in part by his brother, who ratted him out, the predictable Will Ferrell-led Saturday Night Live skits when the Unabomber was still a thing, a memorable reference to the story in one of my favorite movies, Good Will Hunting, and a lot of mysteries about who this guy really was and why he was filling packages with bombs and mailing them around the country, killing three and injuring others.
But like most of the stories of the time, which usually eventually faded and were replaced with the next sensationalized story that captivated us, so too did Ted. The Unabomber’s place in the news cycle eventually faded. His 15 minutes – peaking in 1997 when he was finally apprehended – was post OJ and pre 9-11, and just like Twitter finds itself outraged one minute, and then moves onto the next headline shortly thereafter, eventually the Unabomber became yesterday’s news (but can you imagine the GIF’s, memes and hijinks the social media mob would have engaged in had Kaczynski come along a couple decades later?)
So I had planned to watch the first episode Discovery sent me and tease it a little bit (Ted was an outdoors lover at an early age and a skilled hunter and angler ), but once I watched that two-part block, I was hooked. I binge-watched the remaining five episodes (I have yet to see the series finale and am already having withdrawals waiting for it!).
Discovery told me most of the series sticks to the factual events of the case, with a few liberties taken, such as creating a face-to-face meeting between Kaczynski and FBI agent Jim Fitzgerald, who masterminded the search, (much of what the Unabomber says during their confrontation was spoken during his trial). And what you watch from director Greg Yaitanes is compelling.
This a series worth watching and getting hooked on, even for those a little out of the demographic who were too young to remember it. A great supporting cast – including one of my personal favorites, Mark Duplass, as the Unabomber’s brother, David, gives Manhunt: Unabomber some acceleration and horsepower, but the underneath powering the engine are the two leads, Brits Paul Bettany as Ted Kaczynski and Sam Worthington (born in England but raised in Australia) as “Fitz,” the FBI agent who obsessively leads the team attempting to crack the case via the Unabomber’s complicated manifesto, which reflects a man’s brilliance and tortured soul.
Bettany, in particular is spectacular as the title character. He is wonderfully sinister, and a far cry from when I had just watched the likeable Englishman in 2004’s Wimbledon, a fun, sappy and harmless flick about a washed-up tennis player who wins one of the sport’s prestigious Grand Slam tournaments and finds love with Kirsten Dunst’s racket-swinging brat. But riding along with Bettany’s turn as one of the most infamous characters of our time was a fantastic change of pace from a versatile actor.
Worthington has more screen time and was also excellent. but for me, the series’ high-water mark is Ted Kaczynski’s backstory, which criss-crosses a timeline from the days living in his Montana cabin – where he befriends some locals – his elementary school experience and ill-fated time as a whiz-kid Harvard student. It provides an opportunity to understand a little better as to the why and how of the story.
“I was doomed to be a freak from the start,” Bettany’s Ted says during the episode while reciting a letter to his brother. In this context, we see a side of Kaczynksi that successfully humanizes him and broke my heart to see him endure. No longer do I envision the bearded freak hiding out in the Montana wilderness plotting his next act and baffling the FBI with his manifesto. Instead, I see a bright and sweet young boy in suburban Chicago struggling to fit in with his classmates, two years older than he was. I see a mathematical genius who suffers heartbreaking backstabbing from his best friend (you can probably figure out how young Ted would avenge his buddy’s treason). I see him enter Harvard at an age when he should be taking high school AP trig classes and applying for Ivy League admission.
“David, I keep asking, how did I go from this innocent little kid to this? I think it was Harvard that did it. You don’t know about that either.”
His early 1960s Harvard experience and psychological experiments conducted by Professor Henry Murray are depicted in chilling fashion. It was another case of an impressionable and gifted teenager being exploited, used and tormented by a role model he believed in and trusted. It was a sad moment and one of many turning points and triggers that turned a modern-day Einstein into a bitter, self-destructing troublemaker railing against the establishment.
Somehow, at least for me, that episode allowed me to feel sympathy as to why someone so brilliant could snap like that. When I emailed back and forth with a Discovery Channel contact about what we love about this series, we both agreed there was a case for buying into what Ted Kaczynksi was thinking when he wrote his manifesto and why he went off course as tragically as he did.
At one point, Murray (Brian d’Arcy James), after treating his subject like a disposable lab rat, tells young Ted some prophetic words that would eventually haunt him for the rest of his life.
“Theodore, you did a wonderful job; you truly exceeded my expectations. … I couldn’t have asked for more from a subject or as a friend. I can’t wait to see how well you do next time.”
“Next time?” the shaken young student replies.
“I’m anticipating more great things from you, Ted.”
For more on Manhunt: Unabomber, check out the Discovery Channel’s website.