By John Ruberry

Manhunt: Unabomber, is an engrossing eight-episode Discovery Channel mini-series, which is also available on Netflix, that dramatizes the search for the man dubbed the Unabomber by the FBI, Ted Kaczynski.

Sam Worthington, best known for his starring role in Avatar, stars as James “Fitz” Fitzgerald, the FBI profiler and linguist who connects what became known as the Unabomber Manifesto to writings by serial bomber turned into the FBI by Kaczynski’s brother, James.

The Unabomber’s attack spree began with the explosion of a device that caused minor injuries in 1978 at Northwestern University and ended the fatal attack with a much more sophisticated bomb that killed a timber industry lobbyist in California in 1995. Two other people were murdered by Kaczynski’s bombs, several more were permanently maimed.

Shortly after the murder of he lobbyist, in what the still-unidentified Kaczynski later dismissed as a prank, he threatened to blow up a jet airliner. Ten months later Kaczynski was arrested in his primitive cabin Montana after a search warrant was issued that was based largely on the FBI’s linguistic analysis. Inside the cabin loads of incriminating evidence was discovered, including a bomb ready to be mailed.

FBI sketch of the Unabomber

Paul Bettany portrays the former mathematics professor in an appropriately enigmatic fashion. Is Kaczynski, who is serving six life sentences at the “Supermax” prison in Colorado, an evil man? Or is he a deeply troubled genius trying to find the elusive balance between creativity and madness, in a manner reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s struggles?

Manhunt explores Kaczynski’s youth in the blue collar southwest Chicago suburb of Evergreen Park. A social misfit, Kaczynski was double-promoted in elementary school but, as his Manhunt character says, “I was still the smartest one in my class.” Entering Harvard at 16, Kaczynski was mentally tortured in cruel experiments conducted by psychiatrist Henry Murray (Brian d’Arcy in the series). In this statue-razing era, I say if there is one of Murray standing somewhere, tear it down now.

Kaczynski gets into the head of Fitzgerald in his many jailhouse interviews with him. But there’s a problem here. This is a dramatization of the Unabom story–there were no meetings between the two. Here’s another: the linguistics professor with whom the married Fitz has a soft romance with in the series, was in real life a man.

Abandoned rail line north of Chicago

On the other hand, Kaczynski gets into the heads of viewers, or at least this one. My degree of separation with the Unabomber is three. A friend of mine who lives in Lombard, Illinois, where Kaczynski’s parents moved to around 1970, used to have coffee at the home of his parents. “A nice and sweet old couple,” she told me. They never mentioned anything about their sons to her. Just a couple of blocks from the Kaczynski’s modest frame house in Lombard is the Illinois Prairie Path, which was constructed in the late 1960s, it was the first trail in America created from an abandoned rail line. After the terrorist’s arrest and conviction, I mused while running on the Prairie Path that perhaps he was inspired by the pastoralization of the old Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railway. Perhaps post-industrial society was that not far away, Kaczynski may have reasoned. He lived with his parents in Lombard for a while in the 1970s.

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race” is the opening sentence in the Unabomber Manifesto. A few paragraphs later he adds, “We therefore advocate a revolution against the industrial system.”

Bettany’s Unabomber is a bit too sympathetic of a portrayal for me. Missing are the cold-blooded journal entries recounting his bombings, including one described as “excellent.” In another recounting, Kaczynski expressed “no regret” that his last murder victim was not his intended target.

“People with advanced degrees aren’t as smart as they think they are,” Kaczynski mockingly wrote to one of his victims who was severely wounded by one of his bombs. “If you’d had any brains you would have realized that there are a lot of people out there who resent bitterly the way technonerds like you are changing the world and you wouldn’t have been dumb enough to open an unexpected package from an unknown source.”

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit and he is a native of Chicago’s southwest suburbs.