Between 1978 and 1995, Ted Kaczynski launched a targeted mail-bombing campaign that killed three people and injured 23 others. The decades-long search for him, the man who would become known as the Unabomber, would be the longest and costliest investigation in FBI history.
And though he published a so-called manifesto attempting to explain his grievances with society and the point he intended to make with his acts of terrorism, there’s one question that, despite the Unabomber’s place alongside O.J. Simpson in the U.S.’s pop-culture-meets-media-circus history, has yet to be raised: Why did he do it?
That’s at the center of Discovery’s new series Manhunt: Unabomber, which jumps through time to depict both the FBI’s search for Kaczynski and also traumatic events that happened to him when he was a teenager that could have put him on the path to the man he’d become.
“I think it’s really hard to untangle how much he was driven by real ideological goals, and how much he was driven by fury at his inability to interact with people,” says Paul Bettany, who adopts an engrossing intensity that’s at once feral and disturbingly calculated as Kaczynski.
Kacyznski’s story isn’t just an explosive one—too on the nose?—but a tragic one.
Raised in Evergreen Park, Illinois, Kaczynski was a math prodigy—or, simply put, genius. In the fifth grade his IQ tested at 167, and he was accepted to Harvard University at the age of 16. He became an assistant professor of mathematics at University of California, Berkeley at age 25, making him the youngest appointment ever by the institution.
He resigned abruptly two years later, and, by 1971, had moved to a remote cabin in Lincoln, Montana, where he lived as a recluse for the next two decades and, as we know now, waged a deadly mail-bombing campaign in the name of anarchism. A “manifesto” he wrote that—along with a tip from his brother—helped lead to his arrest claimed he was motivated by an opposition to modern technology and industrialization.
But Manhunt suggests there was more behind his reign of terror than that. As Bettany says, “It’s a fascinating thesis that Harvard weaponized. And I’m not saying that there wasn’t a damaged, awkward child that went to Harvard already. That he didn’t turn up damaged. It’s a thesis, an idea that Harvard kind of weaponized this creature. It’s arguable.”
As the series horrifically dramatizes, Kaczynski was the subject of ghastly and ethically questionable psychological experiments conducted by a professor he had considered a mentor, which some analysts posit could have been formative in Kaczynski’s later-in-life theories and acts of violence.
“The show tries to practice a sort of radical empathy for all victims, really, and see Ted in the context of all of that,” says Bettany. “Not to express or garner or elicit your sympathy for him, because what he did was monstrous acts of horror that inflicted pain on so many people. But I think it is possible and actually important and edifying to practice empathy for the child who had an IQ of 167, ends up at Harvard University, and is then experimented on for three years by MKUltra and the CIA, who were trying to develop techniques to break Soviet spies.”
Of course, a series with the sole intent of humanizing a terrorist would be crass, at best. The clever narrative trick Manhunt employs is its juggling of Kaczynski’s past and deconstruction of the case against the Unabomber and attempts to track him down.
The central figure in those scenes is Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald, played by Avatar’s Sam Worthington. It was years before Fitz’s dogged, unconventional tactics used for cracking the case—linguistic forensics analyzing Kaczynski’s manifesto to prove he was the culprit—would be taken seriously by the cautious, deliberately by-the-books bureaucracy he was working in.
You wouldn’t expect an FBI profiler’s deep-dive into speech quirks to be engaging, but it’s a thrilling and unexpected way of bringing the Unabomber’s story into the booming, if increasingly uninventive, true-crime drama space.
“It’s because we didn’t just make CSI: Unabomber,” says Worthington. “You see the mechanics of what it took to take him down and you see the different facets of that manhunt. But at the heart of it, it’s this weird connection between these two men just wanting to be heard, wanting to be validated.”
And if much of the eight-episode series is so riveting because of the elements you may not be familiar with—from a case so prevalent and publicized through the ’90s that Worthington even caught wind of it growing up in Perth, Australia—then the moments that are instantly recognizable are brief respites from the relentless intensity.
There’s the widely circulated (if inaccurate) iconic sketch—gray hooded sweatshirt, aviator sunglasses—that is an indelible part of American pop-culture history, and gets dramatized here, too. And there’s also the steely, even-handed public face of the investigation, Attorney General Janet Reno, played by Jane Lynch in Manhunt.
“When I took the role, one of the things I was fearful of was that I would wind up looking like Will Ferrell and it would be kind of a joke,” Lynch says, referring to Ferrell’s much-celebrated skewering of Reno’s matter-of-fact and, sure, perhaps passionless press conferences on Saturday Night Live.
But her research refuted that generalization. (Reno passed away last fall, just before shooting began.)
“I discovered this 6-foot-3 woman in the Everglades of Florida who was known for being a straight shooter and smart as heck,” Lynch says. “I watched her physicality. I watched the press conferences she gave where she was always very matter-of-fact, flat, and affected. But then you would see pictures of her where she’s got her head back laughing, open-mouthed laughter.”
Lynch and Reno only play a small role in the series, though a memorable one. But the Emmy-winning actress is happy to cede screen time to this unexpected approach to telling the story we thought we all remembered.
“If this were an hour and a half movie, it would probably be a thriller,” she says. “But because it’s eight episodes, he gets to breathe and we get to really dive into who Kaczynski was. He might have been wired to be the Unabomber from the moment he was born, but it’s really food for thought to think what happened to his brain [at Harvard] and was that the result, his sociopathic impulses and his disregard for human life and his deep sense of alienation from those experiments on his brain.”
It’s even more harrowing to think about the prescient nature of the things Kaczynski was warning about in his manifesto. The means by which he made his point may not resonate, but the way his message was startlingly portending—warning about the ways technology would define, corrupt, and eventually threaten the safety of our lives—should horrify you in new ways.
“What the manifesto has to say about our relationship with technology and with society is more true right now than it was when Ted published it,” says Executive Producer Andrew Sodroski. “It’s about our relationship with our smartphones 20 years before a smartphone existed. It’s about the way technology constrains us and defines our lives, the way that when your phone dings, you answer it.”
“Part of the tragedy of Ted is that the only way he could get people to read what he wrote was by bombing people,” he says. “And when you bomb people, people don’t take what you have to say seriously.”