The most notorious case to reach a Sacramento courtroom gets the mini-series treatment in the alternatively hokey and riveting “Manhunt: Unabomber,” airing at 10 p.m. Tuesdays on the Discovery Channel.
Paul Bettany (“A Beautiful Mind”) plays Theodore Kaczynski, a math genius turned anti-technology mail bomber who killed three people (including two – computer-rental store owner Hugh Scrutton and timber lobbyist Gilbert Murray – in Sacramento) and injured 23 others with homemade explosives. Kaczynski pleaded guilty in 1998 in U.S. District Court in Sacramento and is serving four life sentences.
The three episodes (of eight) that already aired focus far less on Kaczynski than on Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington, from “Avatar”), an FBI profiler who worked on the case.
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“Manhunt” starts in 1995, when Fitz, just after a party at his Philadelphia home to celebrate his academy graduation, receives a visit by FBI officials who want him to join a San Francisco team studying the Unabomber, who has eluded identification for 17 years.
Before he goes, Fitz agonizes about leaving his wife and children temporarily to do the job for which he has just trained. This is the first of several conflicts that seem overplayed in “Manhunt,” in which Fitz’s partner (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and superiors (a hammy Jeremy Bobb and thankfully understated Chris Noth) doubt him at too many turns.
With these hyped-up conflicts, series creator Andrew Sodroski and director Greg Yaitanes seem to want to break up the monotony of scenes occurring primarily among documents and dry-erase boards in drab federal office buildings. Regardless of motivation, scenes in which Fitz’s superiors initially deny his requests to study the FBI’s copy of the Unabomber’s famous “manifesto” play as absurd.
The drama-heightening maneuvers reach peak obviousness when it takes several scenes to get Fitz from the parking lot of a jail holding Kaczynski to a spot across the table from the bomber. This meeting happens in one of the mini-series’ too-frequent flash-forward scenes. “Manhunt” toggles so often between 1995 and 1997 that you wish it would pick a year and stick with it.
Yaitanes shot “Manhunt” – including the mini-series’ opening scene, depicting the bombing of Murray’s downtown Sacramento office – in Georgia. To a Sacramentan, the exteriors will look as generic as the interiors.
Bettany plays Kaczynski as an insinuating presence, a la Anthony Hopkins in “Silence of the Lambs” and Kevin Spacey (a producer here) in virtually all of Spacey’s roles. I have not heard Kaczynski speak, but Bettany’s borderline-charming characterization feels off for a character who spent years alone in a Montana cabin before being caught.
“Manhunt” gets better by episode 3, when a linguistics expert (Lynn Collins) helps Fitz make headway on the case. Collins’ dynamic presence seems to spark Worthington, who begins to radiate intelligence instead of just stress.
Airs at 10 p.m. Tuesdays on the Discovery Channel. Past episodes: Cable On Demand, Discovery.com and Amazon.