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Chasing a ghost: mining real life stories for television

Manhunt: UNABOMBER caters magnificently to crime drama enthusiasts

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Mining real-life stories for limited and recurring series has resulted in some great television lately.

In American Crime Story, true crimes that shocked the nation are recreated over 10-episode seasons. Mindhunter, based on the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, revolves around FBI profilers in the 1970s using criminal psychology to better understand the mind of the serial killer. Wormwood uses the docudrama approach to demystify the death and disappearance of military scientist Frank Olson in 1953.

Manhunt: UNABOMBER, Discovery’s first foray into scripted limited series, rests on a similar ‘fact is stranger than fiction’ premise. Fitting in with the network’s repertoire in the non-fiction space over the years, it focusses on the capture of a man who terrorised America with a series of planned bomb attacks for nearly 20 years. Like American Crime Story, the series will follow the anthology model, where intelligence agencies will work towards nabbing an infamous culprit in each season. The first season focusses on the manhunt for a most devious criminal, Ted Kaczinsky (Paul Bettany) — a mathematical prodigy who wreaked havoc by sending bombs to unsuspecting victims in packages, using simple, foolproof methods that made it impossible to pin him down. Beginning in 1978, the Unabomber — Kaczinsky earned the moniker due to his usual targets: (UN)iversity complexes and (A)irlines — escaped the law with intricately-planned attacks. The bombings continued until 1995, when he started sending out letters to the The New York Times and The Washington Post (a la The Zodiac Killer) to elucidate his motivations behind the attacks.

A large part of Manhunt unfolds in the year 1995, when FBI profiler Jim Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington) joined the task force created to nab the Unabomber. The show then moves between 1995, focussing on Fitzgerald’s efforts to use linguistic analysis to identify Kaczinsky as the Unabomber (the use of the proverb ‘eat your cake and have it too’ in his writings, for example), and 1997, when the bomber is set to go to trial.

Chasing a ghost: mining real life stories for television

Unlike most crime dramas, where the identity of the criminal is held back from audiences, or the identity revealed but his eventual fate unknown, Manhunt lays its cards out on the table at the outset. This is largely to do with the fact that (at least) American audiences are already aware of his identity and life. And for those in the dark, it turns into an interesting storytelling device. We know Fitz’s efforts paid off when we see Kaczinsky in prison in 1997, yet the curiosity of how he nabbed a criminal who hoodwinked law enforcement agencies is what keeps us interested.

Showing Kaczinsky as the Unabomber early on in the show has another advantage — the fantastic Paul Bettany gets more screen time, and the luxury to mould the character into something comprehensive. Some of the show’s best moments are those where you strongly empathise with the man in spite of the dastardly crimes he committed, thanks to Bettany’s potentially award-winning turn. Worthington’s portrayal seems a bit rough-around-the-edges at first, but he comes into his own in the show’s most crucial moments.

While the series caters magnificently to crime drama enthusiasts, it’s a double whammy for language geeks, who get to have their cake and eat it too.

Manhunt: UNABOMBER is streaming on Netflix


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Printable version | Jun 4, 2020 4:31:22 PM |

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