Saturday, September 16, 2017


For most of my life I've lived near Schenectady NY, and for a couple of years I actually lived in the Electric City. Naturally enough, when Theodore Kaczynski was arrested in 1996 on suspicion of being the Unabomer, the big story on our local news was the crucial role his brother David, then a Schenectady resident, played in cracking the case. David became an almost tragic hero, feeling compelled to turn in his brother, having recognized similarities between "F.C.'s" correspondence and Ted's letters, despite his fear, both as a sibling and a principled opponent of capital punishment, that Ted would be put to death. National media told pretty much the same story, and one of the last scenes of the Discovery Channel's eight-part miniseries shows David (Mark Duplass) being fawned over by reporters after Ted (Paul Bettany) pleads guilty to the attacks. The message of Manhunt: Unabomber, however, is that the media had lionized the wrong man -- not because David didn't do a very important thing, but because David's information might well have proved meaningless had not another man provided the theoretical framework for cracking the case. That man, seen departing the court house almost sulkily, ignored by the clueless press, was James "Fitz" Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington), for all intents and purposes the inventor of the field of linguistic forensics. His great contribution to the investigation was to emphasize the fundamental importance of UNABOM's writings, culminating in the manifesto "Industrial Society and its Future," in identifying the man who had killed or maimed two dozen people in his criminal career. Fitzgerald's theory was crucial, so the miniseries shows, in convincing a judge to issue the search warrant that enabled investigators to find more decisively incriminating material evidence in Ted Kaczynski's cabin in the Montana woods. For all this Fitzgerald earned little glory, after an ordeal that left him nearly as alienated against institutions, if not society in general, as his murderous quarry.

Conceived by Andrew Sodroski, directed by Greg Yaitanes, and loaded with producer credits including Fitzgerald himself and Kevin Spacey, Manhunt: Unabomber focuses on Fitz's role in the investigation. In interviews, Fitzgerald has described the miniseries as 80% accurate, while describing the onscreen Fitz as a composite character. In other words, onscreen Fitz does some important things that Fitzgerald never did. The writers, for instance, totally made up an early framing device that shows Fitz being summoned from almost-Kaczynskian isolation to try to persuade Kaczynski himself to plead guilty and thus avoid a trial that could prove embarrassing in more ways than one. These scenes are the some of the weakest in the whole miniseries because they're obviously intended to evoke a Lecter-Starling relationship between Kaczynski and Fitz, toying with the idea that Fitz agrees with some of Ted's ideas to a more than healthy extent. Taken as a whole, the earliest episodes are the worst because they also depend on the cliche of the insightful agent to whom no one will listen, apparently because everyone in the FBI hierarchy is an idiot. Fitz's superiors focus unimaginatively on physical evidence and a half-baked profile that infers the bomber's identity entirely from his choice of targets. Presented with the bomber's typewritten threatening letters, they want to know what sort of typewriter he used, but couldn't care less about what the letters actually say. Fitz believes that something more important can be learned from the letter writer's quirks of spelling and vocabulary, his idioms and the way he structures his texts. But no one will believe him! Oh, the fools!

Manhunt rights itself once it abandons the early non-linear format and goes into procedural mode. It gains momentum as the investigation gains momentum, as Fitz's colleagues slowly warm to his ideas and the letters provided by an initially reluctant David Kaczynski provide the key to the door Fitz posited. Fitz is shown traveling to Schenectady to cajole David into giving up the letters, after the younger Kaczynski had been assured by another agent -- on dubious grounds -- that Ted could not be F.C. I get the impression that that meeting never happened, but what else is new? For the sake of narrative economy, TV and movies often show one hero doing the actual work of many people, and I suppose you could argue for a certain thematic authenticity to the meeting that justifies the artistic license.

Before the arrest, Manhunt backtracks to finally showcase Paul Bettany in an episode recounting Ted Kaczynski's spiral into lethal alienation. While young Ted has a legitimate grievance against a Harvard mentor who subjected him to government-funded brainwashing experiments, he is shown to be hopelessly alienated from society for most-likely deeper reasons. He's capable of casually befriending fellow library patrons in his Montana community, but can't bring himself to accept an invitation to a birthday party for a teenage boy he'd been informally tutoring. If you, like some people, sympathize with Kaczynski's anti-institutional thinking, you might find this flashback episode one big ad hominem argument, but most people probably will see it as a misfit blaming society for his alienation when the causes are more likely irreducibly personal. I'm sure many people like to think that they could get along with others more easily if society were ordered differently, or if all societal rules were overturned, but my suspicion (as a relatively alienated person myself) is that blaming society for personal alienation is to put the cart before the horse. In any event, Bettany, taking a break from his main gig as The Vision in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, does a decent job talking American and a better one portraying Kaczynski's alienation and ultimate weakness in the face of stronger personalities. Determined to make a stand in defense of his principles rather than accept an insanity defense, he folds under mental intimidation from both Fitz and his own defense attorney (a swiftly devastating Rebecca Henderson), who tells Ted that if he isn't insane, she wouldn't know who is. Having hoped for a Hitler-like opportunity to turn public opinion in his favor, Ted's pre-sentencing statement sputters to a pathetic halt.

While Jim Fitzgerald was one among many producers of Manhunt, its ultimate portrait of Fitz is fairly unflattering. The idea that Fitz might feel any affinity for Ted as a victim, in his own mind, of institutional thinking only makes Fitz looks like a self-pitying jerk. While that may be an accidental impression, there's no mistaking the miniseries' intention to portray Fitz as a tunnel-visioned narcissist whose obsession with the case, and his desire to win credit for cracking it, ruins his relationships with women, including his wife, a sympathetic colleague and a potential new love interest. I don't know whether Fitzgerald signed off on that, but I don't know either whether it's a personal reflection on the actual man or just the cliched presentation of the obsessively flawed hero. While Manhunt freely invents encounters that never happened, it can't avoid the facts that render its conclusion anticlimactic. The early framing device and Kaczynski's post-arrest brainstorming have set up the idea that he will challenge the credibility of Fitz's linguistic forensics in an effort to  the quash the search warrant on which all other evidence depends. If this were pure fiction, the payoff would be Fitz on the witness stand vindicating his ideas and effectively closing the case against Ted, perhaps under cross-examination by Ted himself, but the judge in the case rejects the challenge to the search warrant with almost arbitrary decisiveness, leaving Ted to plead insanity or plead guilty and denying Fitz the moment that could have vindicated him as the hero of the whole story. Oddly, anticlimax suits this series. It seems right, at least, that the Kaczynski case ends with (an almost literal) whimper rather than a bang. If you can get past the first two lousy episodes, I'd recommend the whole thing -- with the archetypal grain of salt, that is.

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