'Manhunt: Deadly Games': TV Review

Strong performances and a good focus on process overcome a lot of flaws.
2/3/2020

Just months after Clint Eastwood's film, Richard Jewell's story gets a more nuanced retelling in Spectrum Original's new season of an anthology bumped from Discovery.

Today's Peak TV snapshot: The first thing I'm going to actually recommend from Spectrum Originals — a service many viewers don't even have the option to receive — is a limited series developed for another cable network that eventually dropped out of the scripted programming rat race; it's a 10-episode take on a story you may already have chosen to skip when it was a box office disappointment in big-screen form less than two months ago.

Spectrum's Manhunt: Deadly Games has a very bad title, is several installments longer than it needs to be and really got on my nerves more than a few times. So that's the kind or recommendation this is going to be, because other than those flaws (and more), Deadly Games is, like Discovery's Manhunt: Unabomber before it, a solidly told game of cat-and-mouse with some very worthy performances.

With Andrew Sodroski remaining on board as creator, the series starts with the story of Richard Jewell (Cameron Britton), who went from unassuming security guard credited with saving lives in the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta to alleged bomber when local reporter Kathy Scruggs (Carla Gugino) received a tip that the FBI was looking into him as a suspect.

Yes, this is the same story Clint Eastwood told in his recent feature, with generally comparable points of condemnation, specifically that these two powerful institutions — the media and the American intelligence establishment — scapegoated an innocent man and refused to back down until they'd destroyed his life.

What Manhunt: Deadly Games has in its favor is nuance. Ideologically, I suspect this version reflects the way Eastwood might have told this story 25 years ago when he was maybe a defter filmmaker? Across the board, it's a story of individuals struggling within institutions which, while not necessarily corrupt, present stumbling blocks in the way of justice as much as they facilitate the truth.

It doesn't hide from the mistakes made by the FBI investigators or by Scruggs — maybe more subtle here than in Olivia Wilde's portrayal in the Eastwood movie, though still surely a tragic train wreck — but it puts them in institutional context and shows the impact of forces pushing down on people prevented from doing the best version of their jobs. Nobody is saying life-ruining mistakes weren't made, just that those mistakes might not have been entirely petty and pernicious.

Oh, and Sodroski has time. We'll never know how Eastwood would have told his story with 10 hours, but the extra time lets Sodroski carry this story beyond Jewell and his eventual redemption to Eric Rudolph (Jack Huston), the actual bomber only caught after a multiyear search of the North Carolina woods.

Manhunt: Mind Games, which Spectrum is presenting in its binge-able totality, is a series that does a lot of big things wrong and a lot of little things very right.

Tops among those unimpressive big things, it looks astonishingly cheap. This is not a "little engine that could" story of a scrappy independent crew getting the most value for their limited dollar, though surely the team led by director Michael Dinner tries hard. But sequences like the opening Olympic Park bombing look like they were filmed with a cast of a dozen and fail to generate any scope or heft. The Rudolph manhunt is a bit better because a couple drone shots of hills and trees can deliver a semblance of that scope.

Sodroski also makes a pointless mess of the timeline. Rather than splitting the story in two and having Jewell and his mistreatment dominate the first half before the investigation refocuses, the story is structured to suggest that the injustice against Jewell was stretching for years as the FBI looked for Rudolph, or maybe that the Rudolph investigation was only stretching months? At a certain point, we stop getting updates on what year it is in the Rudolph timeline, which just makes it a shoddier version of history. The finale features a blurring of two events separated by multiple years that made me briefly, but actively, mad.

I don't understand why the timelines needed to be conflated at all, because what Sodroski and the writers are best at is emphasizing that these manhunts are incredibly difficult and incredibly methodical. As bad as the depiction of various bombings may be, the series is great when it's just a few people in a room having disagreements about evidence or trying to convince each other of evidential leaps or jockeying over jurisdiction.

This is where the superb Manhunt cast comes into play. Britton's stature — his height was a better match in his Emmy-nominated turn in Mindhunter — makes him a little unlikely as such an easily overlooked everyman. Raising the timbre of his voice, employing an efficient Southern accent and adjusting his posture, he crafts a performance that's heartbreaking if never quite "unassuming." Both Judith Light, as Jewell's mother Bobi, and Jay O. Sanders, as attorney Watson Bryant, give performances that are big enough to help give scare to Britton's excellent turn. I think there's also a desired contrast with Huston's soft-spoken interpretation of Rudolph, which is sometimes so deceptively understated that the character has to kill a dog or two to remind us he's a bad guy.

On the law-and-order side, Arliss Howard is a smart-and-folksy standout as Earl Embry, a brilliant ATF agent prone to the kind of intuitive leaps and suppositions Sodroski is best at writing. Gethin Anthony gives some shadings to Jack Brennan, an FBI agent with a filial devotion to Desmond Harrington's Louis Freeh, but the character is still left feeling mighty composite-y. Gugino makes you understand the motivations behind most of Scruggs' poor choices, which is an admirable feat given how much time the character spends drinking and doing recreational drugs with law enforcement.

As the series goes along, it becomes more and more of a true ensemble, and I especially liked the way actors like Nick Searcy, Marley Shelton, Becky Ann Baker and Brad William Henke add depth to the Rudolph side of the story.

It's finally the cast and the little investigative beats that kept me watching and enjoying Manhunt: Deadly Games through to the end. It doesn't sell Jewell's victimization short, nor does it let the media or government off the hook. It just shows how stories like this can benefit from depth, no matter what other problems they have.

Cast: Cameron Britton, Jack Huston, Judith Light, Gethin Anthony, Carla Gugino, Arliss Howard, Kelly Jenrette, Judith Light
Creator: Andrew Sodroski from the book by Maryanne Vollers
Premieres: Monday (Spectrum OnDemand)