'Manhunt: Unabomber': TV Review

Forensic linguistics prove reasonably thrilling.

Paul Bettany is terrific and Sam Worthington tries hard in Discovery's eight-hour look at FBI attempts to capture the Unabomber.

With Avatar star Sam Worthington and Avengers star Paul Bettany in the fold, Discovery's Manhunt: Unabomber is being sold as an A-list historical game of cat-and-mouse, which is a much more enticing pitch than the nerdier, "It's an eight-hour miniseries about how forensic linguistics captured the Unabomber."

Personally, I like it more as the latter. Having seen seven of the eight episodes, I feel the tête-à-tête aspect of Manhunt: Unabomber is out of balance (although Worthington tries really hard). However, Manhunt: Unabomber is a generally engrossing process story, heavy-handed in places, but mostly interesting in its depiction of how years of using traditional methods and failing to catch America's most notorious serial bomber gave way to something experimental and new.

Writer Andrew Sodroski jumps around in time, starting in 1997 as FBI agents find Worthington's Fitz living a reclusive life in the wilderness. They need him because Ted Kaczynski has announced that he will only speak to the agent who caught him. Flashbacks then take us to 1995, where Fitz graduates from Quantico. After spending years as a Philadelphia beat cop, Fitz is older than most new agents, but he's also the brightest profiler in his class, which earns him a trip to San Francisco and placement on the task force trying to bring down a domestic terrorist whose bombs killed three and injured 23 others over a multi-decade span. FBI bigwigs Don Ackerman (Chris Noth) and Stan Cole (Jeremy Bobb) want Fitz to confirm the hacky profile they've been working on for years, and they're contemptuous whenever he attempts to steer away from the forensic evidence they've accumulated. Fitz finds allies in plucky officer Tabby (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and eventually in Natalie (Lynn Collins), a linguistics scholar sexy enough to threaten Fitz's wife, Ellie (Elizabeth Reaser).

Fitz's renegade process becomes relevant when the Unabomber releases his infamous manifesto, and that's when Sodroski and director Greg Yaitanes rise to the challenge of making people staring at pages of text for hours on end, periodically realizing things, into something thrilling. It isn't a mystery that we're given the information to solve on our own, so the best we can do follow along as Fitz has big revelations.

From a writing prospect, there's a fair amount of repetitiveness. I lost count of the number of times Fitz has hit a brick wall, listens to somebody talk about something irrelevant, starts staring off into space, and suddenly makes a lateral leap based on a snippet of conversation. It's the kind of thing Dr. House used to do once or twice per episode, so in the hands of regular House director Yaitanes, the device is at least being executed by an expert. Nearly every one of those scenes is followed by Fitz running to his boss with big ideas like trying to decipher the Unabomber's idiolect and being told to just do his job and stop being such an egghead, only to be proven right, etc.

Yaitanes is able to keep the cycles of document-dissection taut enough — composer Gregory Tripi and editors Iain Erskine and Scott Turner also deserve credit — so that Manhunt: Unabomber can really take advantage of its few action set pieces, like a surveillance operation targeting Bay Area readers of The Washington Post. The series also does well with ethical set pieces, such as a back-and-forth debate on whether or not to give in to certain Unabomber demands.

Really, though, Manhunt: Unabomber doesn't get going until Bettany arrives at the end of the second hour. I'm not a huge fan of the makeup work, which mostly makes Bettany resemble character actor William Fichtner. But that's a distraction I recovered from reasonably quickly because the makeup doesn't impact Bettany's eyes, which reveal a man in a constant state of deliberation. Along the same lines, although Bettany's accent is inconsistent, it doesn't obscure the cadences of a man trained to consider every word at every moment. This linguistic calculation is especially key, because it's a major piece of what does Kaczynski in. The sixth hour, paralleling Kaczynski's life in isolation with the experiences at Harvard that helped shape him, is superb because it just turns the story over to Bettany.

Worthington makes an admirable effort, but he falls short in the clash of equals this show should be. You can see how he's manifesting Fitz's discomfort in his posture and body language, how his lack of niceties points to his compulsive personality. Because Fitz being from Philly is a plot point in addition to a character detail, Worthington says "wooter" instead of "water" in one scene, and that's the extent of his accent work.

What's more, Manhunt: Unabomber doesn't really justify the initial suggestion that Fitz was able to catch Kaczynski because of their similarly obsessive worldviews, either because it doesn't push Fitz deep enough or Worthington just isn't able to take the character's passion to that next level. This weakens the show's argument, almost certainly correct, that Kaczynski's paranoia about the dehumanizing side of technology and modernism was, if nothing else, sociologically ahead of the curve.

In parts that verge on cliches of stick-in-the-mud stubbornness, Noth and Bobb serve their purposes, and Castle-Hughes is very good with a character who, quietly, has perhaps the show's clearest character arc. Mark Duplass, who plays Ted's disbelieving brother; Brian d'Arcy James, who portrays notorious psychologist Henry Murray; and especially Jane Lynch, wisely underplaying her take on Janet Reno, all add value.

If the Unabomber run is successful, Manhunt will become an anthology franchise for Discovery. Sodroski's structural approach is an interesting one, and Yaitanes' resourceful direction and Bettany's intense performance make Unabomber worth checking out. I'd probably be up for more manhunts in the future. It's definitely better than Discovery's last miniseries, Harley and the Davidsons.

Cast: Sam Worthington, Paul Bettany, Chris Noth, Keisha Castle Hughes, Elizabeth Reaser, Lynn Collins, Jeremy Bobb, Mark Duplass.
Creator: Andrew Sodroski

Airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on Discovery.