Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Manhunt: Unabomber, parts 1 and 2 (Lionsgate/Discovery Channel, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My “feature” last night was the first two episodes of the eight-part TV miniseries Lionsgate and the Discovery Channel came up with called Manhunt: Unabomber, about the mysterious homegrown terrorist who between 1978 and 1995 sent 15 bombs through the mails, killing three people and injuring 23 others. Since his initial targets were all either universities or airports, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) named the task force assigned to catch him UNABOM — for University and Airport BOMbings — which gave rise to the media calling him the “Unabomber.” His own name for himself was “FC,” short for “Freedom Club” — it’s quite common for lone-wolf terrorists to claim to be part of an organization even if they are fact its only member — and eventually his targets expanded to computer-store owners, geneticists and his final lethal victim, timber industry lobbyist Gilbert Brent Murray in Sacramento, California. After attacking a computer store in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1987 — where, for the first time, an eyewitness got enough of a look at him to result in the famous Unabomber sketch that made the cover of Newsweek and gave the FBI their first idea of his physical appearance — he laid low for six years but then started striking in 1993 with greater force than before (two of his three known killings occurred during the last two attacks: Murray and advertising executive Thomas J. Mosser). In 1995, after having mounted four new attacks during his “comeback,” the Unabomber wrote letters to media outlets saying he would give up terrorism if his 35,000-word essay Industrial Society and Its Future were published in a major newspaper. The New York Times and Washington Post published Industrial Society and Its Future on September 19, 1995, apparently with the permission of attorney general Janet Reno and FBI director Louis Freeh, who sanctioned publishing it in hopes that someone would read it, recognize, “Hey, I used to know a guy who talked that way,” and reveal that to the FBI, thereby enabling them to identify who the Unabomber was and therefore be able to catch him. 

What I hadn’t realized was that the people who read what became known as the “Unabomber Manifesto” (a term the Unabomber hated because it made his book seem like the ravings of a lunatic — and also, quite possibly, because it lumped him with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and their work The Communist Manifesto, and the Unabomber was ferociously critical of Leftists, saying that their attempts to impose their own morality on everyone else made them enemies of freedom — even though it was mostly Leftists, especially anarchist Leftists, who had published similar critiques of industrial and post-industrial society) and recognized that they’d known someone who talked like that would be his brother, David Kaczynski, and David’s wife Linda. The Unabomber turned out to be Ted Kaczynski, a scientific genius, a Ph.D. in mathematics and author or co-author of 12 published research papers. Only in 1971 he had given up his academic career and moved to a remote location just outside Lincoln, Montana, where he built himself a rustic cabin and loved without electricity or running water. He survived by reverting to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, shooting small game (there’s a scene of him in the TV show in which he’s seen bringing back to his cabin a rabbit he’s just shot) and making himself as self-sufficient as possible. He brought with him an old-fashioned manual typewriter on which he wrote his manifesto as well as letters to various media outlets explaining what he was doing. In Manhunt: Unabomber Ted Kaczynski is played by Paul Bettany — one of those actors, like Ryan Gosling and Paul Dano, who seems to have got typecast as crazies (though Bettany is also a star of the Marvel Comics Avengers movies and played the sidekick in the film Master and Commander, based on Patrick O’Brian’s novels about the early 19th century British navy, the roles I know him best for are as John Nash’s imaginary sidekick in A Beautiful Mind — also a movie about a crazy math professor! — and the hired assassin in The Da Vinci Code) — but the main focus is on one of the FBI agents instrumental in his capture, profiler Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington). 

As the film opens Fitz is just graduating from FBI profiler school, and he’s depicted as brilliant but also arrogant and independent. His wife Ellie (Elizabeth Reaser) is hoping that profiling work will enable him to remain in Washington, D.C. and work a normal schedule so he can be a real husband to her and father to their kids, but no such luck: he’s almost immediately summoned to the other end of the country, to the San Francisco Bay Area, where the Unabomber Task Force is assembled and they’re trying to figure out who he is. So far they’ve come up with a half-page arguing that he’s a disgruntled worker who was laid off by United Airlines when they cut back their workforce in the early 1970’s and he’s a person of low intelligence. I suspect the FBI agents who insisted that the Unabomber was an uneducated proletarian were influenced by a particularly famous bombing case in the 1950’s, “Mad Bomber” George Metesky in New York City, whom authorities initially thought was a genius and turned out to be a proletarian angry over a workplace injury he had suffered years before and for which he felt he hadn’t been properly compensated. So with the Unabomber they made the exact opposite mistake. The FBI agent in charge of the task force, Dan Ackerman (Chrstopher Noth, one of those actors I can’t seem to escape: Law and Order, its spinoff Law and Order: Criminal Intent and The Good Wife), insists that Fitz merely work from the profile they already have to produce 15 pages, “no typos” (apparently not only the Unabomber but also the FBI was still using typewriters then, instead of computers), which they can send to Janet Reno and release to the media. But Fitz, acting like the usual hero in a police drama, defies his superiors and comes to the conclusion that the Unabomber is above average in intelligence, had extensive higher education and has a clear message that he’s trying to send through his bombs and their targets. When the Unabomber finally submits his manifesto to the media, Fitz is anxious to read it — here he’s become convinced that the bombings are meant to serve a political or social agenda, and here’s the bomber himself presenting his political and social agenda in 56 close-typed pages — but he has to cool their heels while the FBI agents dust it for fingerprints and search the papers for other forensic evidence before they’ll let him read the damned thing. The FBI eventually makes and distributes copies around the office, but Fitz is the only one who bothers to read it. 

The first two episodes (the Discovery Channel is promoting this as an eight-part mini-series and the second episode wasn’t set to premiere until August 8, but they set episode two to run right after episode one on August 1) annoyingly cut back and forth between 1995, when Fitz is working out his profile of the Unabomber (and, at one point, going so far as to move into his own no-mod-cons cabin to try to get a feel for what his quarry is thinking), and 1997, when in order to avoid a showcase trial that would give Ted Kaczynski a platform for his ideas and turn into a circus, the FBI and the Justice Department assign Fitz the task of interrogating Kaczynski and seeing if he can get him to confess. It seems Ted Kaczynski asked for Fitz to interrogate him and agreed to meet Fitz against the advice of his own attorney, and things went fairly well between them until Fitz pushed him too hard for a guilty plea, and Kaczynski made a you’re-lile-all-the-rest speech to him. The cutbacks between 1995 and 1997 get jarring — it might have been better if the film had started with the interrogation and then periodically cut to flashbacks as Fitz got more information out of his target — but on the whole Manhunt: Unabomber is well done and quite compelling drama even though, as my husband Charles said of the film Shine, it’s the sort of true story the filmmakers chose to make because the real-life events play so much like the clichés of fictional film. The whole idea of the detective who gets so wrapped up in the mind of the criminal that he starts to lose his own identity and alienates those around him, including his own family, was probably most famously used in The Silence of the Lambs but is really decades older than that; so is the idea that the detective and the criminal have a great deal in common and the detective realizes in himself some of the passions and motivations of the criminal, only he’s channeled them into catching criminals instead of becoming one. (One could readily imagine director Fritz Lang making a version of this story in which Fitz would become so wrapped up in the Unabomber’s identity that he would start planting bombs himself once the Unabomber were either incarcerated, went totally crazy and was put in a mental institution, or died.) I’m not sure the Unabomber’s story and Fitz’s rather quirky (to say the least!) approach to catching him has the stuff of eight hours of TV, but I enjoyed the opening episode(s) and am looking forward to the rest.