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‘Manhunt: UNABOMBER’ review: Poor writing but Sam Worthington is worth watching

The Discovery channel's first original scripted series is

The Discovery channel's first original scripted series is an in-depth look at how an FBI profiler helped track down the Unabomber. Credit: Discovery


WHERE | WHEN Premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on Discovery

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Anyone familiar with the case of the Unabomber — whose campaign of terror from 1978-95 left three people dead and 23 injured — will appreciate the red-herring intro to “Manhunt: Unabomber.” A party of federal agents descend on a remote cabin in Northern California, to wait for the bearded survivalist to return home with a pair of snared rabbits. But it’s 1997 — the man they’re after is not some off-the-grid terrorist. He’s the disaffected FBI agent who solved the mystery two years earlier. And now the Feds need his help to close their case.

Flashback to 1995: Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington) has just achieved his dream job — FBI profiler — when he’s drafted onto the Unabom Task Force that has conducted the longest, costliest manhunt in FBI history. But after being more or less begged to join the task force, Fitzgerald finds the unit paralyzed by politics and process and predisposed to dismiss his methods. His boss, Don Ackerman (Chris Noth), divisional head of the Bay Area FBI, wants Fitz to stick to an outdated profile that’s led nowhere; Ackerman’s immediate underling, Stan Cole (Jeremy Bobb), snarls and sneers at anything that isn’t hard evidence. But Fitz perseveres, employing the little-known science of forensic linguistics while engaged in a one-sided dialogue with the mysterious criminal who becomes his personal obsession.

MY SAY Worthington may have been the star of the biggest movie ever made (“Avatar”) but he remains a cipher and the eight-part “Manhunt: Unabomber” shows you why. As the real-life investigator Jim Fitzgerald, whose largely unheralded work in stopping the Unabomber should be the stuff of high-grade tension (and occasionally is), Worthington can’t decide who the guy is: Is he the introspective eccentric he seems to be at home with his wife (Elizabeth Reaser) and their three kids? The guy who grovels before his new bosses (Noth and Robb) when they first meet? The self-possessed cracker of language codes who now and then actually makes a defiant case for himself and his edgy methods of criminology? He’s all the above, unfortunately, and impossible to define, impossible to like.

Ted Kaczynski, on the other hand — the lunatic played with soulful sociopathy by Paul Bettany — knows exactly who and what he is. And despite being a genius-level paranoid/social-theorist and long-distance murderer, Kaczynski’s self-possession makes him a magnetic character — unlike Fitzgerald, who develops a “Silence of the Lambs”-inspired relationship with Kaczynski, but without Clarice Starling’s moral clarity.

BOTTOM LINE Engrossing at times and well worth watching, though the writing is often graceless and the direction haphazard.

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