True-ish detective: Unpacking “Manhunt: Unabomber” on Netflix streaming

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The eight-part Discovery Channel series Manhunt: Unabomber is one of the most thoroughly captivating, entertaining pieces of bullshit in the entire canon of true-crime TV.

Bullshit because Manhunt takes narrative liberties that are extreme even for Hollywood. The fabrication starts with a focus more on the FBI Unabomb investigation than on Ted Kacyznski. Nothing wrong with this approach, of course. But when a minor player in the real case (profiler Jim Fitzgerald, here Sam Worthington in the lead role) is turned into a modern-day Sherlock Holmesand his near-omniscience is only exaggerated by pitting him as a stereotypical underdog geniusthe formula might be hard to swallow for true-crime die-hards looking for the level of point-by-point attention to historical detail that, say, Zodiac obsessed over.

On the flip side, if you view this thing merely as an exercise in historical fiction (rather than the true-crime retelling it poses as), you’d be hard-pressed to find a more engrossing piece of detective TV over the past couple years.

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Not exactly selling itself…

While we’re on the subject of missteps by an otherwise-
phenomenal series, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the reason it took me a year to get around to watching this: piss-poor marketing. Take the reason half the world has seen
Mindhunter (a series incredibly similar, and no more compelling) and not this: With the dubious Discovery Channel stamp on a bland, gray canvas featuring an unrecognizable actor posing as the Unabomber, the cover art here suggests a hammy, low-budget direct-to-DVD thriller. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Again, A-lister Sam Worthington stars (Netflix has increased his facial presence on its streaming page since they picked this up in late-2017). Manhunt also spares no expense on its strong cinematography, recreation of period and place, and reputable side cast (Jane Lynch as Janet Reno, Mark Duplass as Kaczynski’s brother). It actually feels a lot closer to the high-quality cinematographic and suspense work of Fincher in Mindhunter and Zodiac than it does, say, Lifetime’s Jodi Arias story.

UNABROTHER: Mark Duplass as David Kaczynski

UNABROTHER: Mark Duplass as David Kaczynski

And where Worthington does a fine job in a hyperbolized role, one of the greatest accomplishments of Manhunt is Paul Bettany’s dynamic portrayal of Kazcynski. Rarely do serial killer stories so impactfully display the humanity of their… serial killers.

And that’s probably a good segue to get into the narrative meat of the show.

The first episode opens with a calm-yet-sinister voiceover imploring: “I want you to think about the mail, for a minute. Stop taking it for granted like some complacent, sleepwalking sheep. And really think about it. I promise you, you will find the U.S. mail a worthy object of your contemplation.” This device (Bettany reading from the Unabomber letters and manifesto) is employed periodically throughout the series, both as a tool to get into Kaczynski’s mind and also as an empathic ploy that begins to explain why our protagonist (Worthington) becomes dangerously smitten with Kaczynski’s theories.

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“Mind. Blown.”

As Fitzgerald ascends from average-Joe Philly beat cop to he-man detective, he’s brought in by the FBI to build a profile on the elusive Unabomber. With the help of a faithful assistant (Keisha Castle-Hughes), Fitzgerald probes the case from new angles, identifying patterns in the Unabomber’s letters that lead to what he dubs “forensic linguistics.”

As bosses second-guess him at every turn, Fitzgerald continually saves face with last-moment revelations. This is not a spoiler, as Fitz and Ted face-off early onpart of Manhunt‘s effective nonlinear narrative. (They never met in real life, if you were wondering.)

While Worthington’s Fitzgerald is clearly a fabricated hero-character constructed for the sake of thrilling cinema, that construction is quite effective. Perhaps part of what makes Manhunt so intriguing is that as Fitz’s Kaczynski obsession begins to manifest in his personal behavior and ideologies (down to living in an isolated cabin in the woods and growing a laughably fake beard), we are confronted with a dark and ugly truth: Ted Kaczynski, the man responsible for the brutal murder and disfiguration of so many innocents, was in fact a sane, brilliant ideologist whose theories were, by and large, very relatable to good people. Like Fitz. Or you. Or me. “He just has the courage to live according to his ideals,” Fitz says at one point when refuting the popular notion that Kaczynski, was insane. “I respect that.”

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“Word.”

There’s no denying that Kaczynski is painted with a very sympathetic brush in this seriesone that might understably offend families of the innocent people who Kaczynski maimed and killed. But again, part of what makes the Unabomber case so interesting is that Ted Kaczynski wasn’t a psychopath or lunatic, but rather a passionate human who did some horribly misguided shit to get his desperate plea about the state of humanity across to the rest of humanity.

One particularly poignant and haunting scene shows Bettany frolicking in the woods to a classical symphony played on an old gramophone. Here, he looks like some ethereal pan creaturea hybrid of Thoreau and Baryshnikovenchanted by the sublime beauty of nature, and an inextricable part of it. It’s this side of Kaczynski that’s relatable.

Bettany brings a disturbing level of gravity to his portrayal of Kaczynski, showing his many sides: the idealistic naturalist who cares for and is enchanted by the world; the creepy, angsty social outcast; the egomaniacal tortured genius who decided to play god.

In all, this is an expertly crafted detective series with an incredible turn by its antagonist. I’d be playing spoiler if I were to get into my views about why this series is both Grade-A cinema and Grade-A bullshit. Suffice it to say that you’ll probably see what I’m talking about as it unfolds.

IMDb: 8.2
GRADE: A-

-Sam Adams

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The Fincherian Copycat: Netflix’s Mindhunter channels all things Zodiac

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For fans of serial killer cinema rooted in true crime, it’s not much of a stretch to say that David Fincher’s Zodiac is the modern-day gold standard. Fincher, a pioneer of both music videos and digital filmmaking, crafted scenes, moments, and frames that were at once sublimely enchanting and forebodingly ominousconvincingly turning the innocence of the freewheeling late-60s Bay Area into the tapestry of murderous havoc and foggy mystery that the film’s namesake created during his bloody reign of terror.

And while I thought Fincher’s Gone Girl was massively less inventive from a narrative standpoint (blame author Gillian Flynn), it and Zodiac shared an undeniably singular aesthetic. If I were a snooty film professor, I’d probably call this… “Fincherian.” This comes through in the director’s insistence on painstakingly calculated camerawork, trademarked by sweeping, panningand often surreallow-light shots that makes many of his frames look like Gregory Crewdson stills.

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A photograph by Gregory Crewdson… or what it feels like to be in David Fincher’s mind.

Fincher’s encyclopedic rock knowledge, used as pointedly and effectively as audiovisual masters like Tarantino and Scorsese, also doesn’t hurt (example A: The “Hurdy Gurdy Man” scene).

OK, that’s enough Fincher ass-kissing (I’ll point out that while he helmed Se7en, Fight Club and Panic Room, Zodiac is his only film I’m really nuts about).

The point is that, in many ways, Netflix’s Mindhunter feels like a follow-up to Fincher’s 2007 mystery-thriller surrounding the Zodiac Killer. This is apparent even in its opening scenebefore the credits introduce, you guessed it, Fincher as an executive producer (he’s also a director of four of the first season’s 10 episodes).

And much like the point-by-point casefile and eyewitness bent toward true-crime upon which Zodiac was founded, Mindhunter also does its homework. Its account of the onset of criminal psychological profiling by John E. Douglas, Robert Ressler and Dr. Ann Burgess (with pseudonyms in the show), plays closely to the script of Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, co-authored by Douglas.

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Speaking of great true crime cinema, check out Michael Rooker as Henry Lee Lucas in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (Amazon Prime)

After leaving off on one of the most baffling and psychologically fascinating serial murder cases in history, it’s fitting that Fincher would pick up a story that, circuitously, started where Zodiac left off (i.e., when you can’t track down a serial killer, how do you track down his mind?). The fact that Mindhunter is adapted by Joe Penhall lends the project even more grim potential (Penhall adapted Cormac McCarthy’s The Road).

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Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road: a feel-good father-and-son tale about foraging for treasures in the woods.

So yes, Mindhunter has a decidedly “Fincherian” aspect to it that should appeal to fans of Zodiac. That said, I’m not hailing it as the second-coming.

But before I get into criticism, I should probably give a little premise-oriented background.

Jonathan Groff plays the lead as Holden Ford (AKA John E. Douglas), a bright-eyed upstart federale who gets taken out of the field after semi-successfully dealing with a bloody hostage negotatiation. Shortly after, he meets up with a grizzled veteran Behavioral Science agent named Bill Tench (Holt McCallany as Robert Ressler, in the series’ most dynamic and enjoyable performance). As they go around the country lecturing small-town cops on FBI techniques, Ford makes it clear that he has much loftier ambitions than status-quo educational seminars. He’s a guy who wants to change things. And he won’t be stopped.

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Groff and McCallany: The He-Men G-Men.

Ford starts by visiting maximum security prisons to interview serial killers, something Tench begrudgingly becomes an accomplice in. As their insights into the most warped criminal minds start developing patterns that lead to results in the field, they’re joined by an East Coast professor, Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv playing Ann Burgess), who believes in the scope of Ford’s organically manifesting mission from God.

The series is at its best when it depicts conversation with deviant psycho killers like Edmund Kemper (the scene-stealing Cameron Britton, a seemingly gentle giant who also brutally killed his family and several young women) and Richard Speck. A twisted dynamic that begins to shine light on Douglas and Ressler’s revolutionary work comes through here, likely enhanced by parts of this dialogue coming from actual recorded conversations with the real-life killers.

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Cameron “Fat Paul Dano” Britton slays as Big Ed Kemper.

The subsequent application of Ford and Tench’s findings to cases involving sadistic murderers gives an already taught series that edge-of-your-seat thriller appeal. Simply put, it’s where the series bridges its procedural narrative with the reason we go the movies. And it works flawlessly.

Unfortunately, Mindhunter loses traction as it veers away from being a traveling case study on infamous serial killers and goes more into petty, bureaucratic FBI conflicts and relationship subplots. While the leads are very well fleshed-out characters as one would expect from Fincher, rigidly stereotyped performances from a bureaucratic FBI chief and a bumbling, deceitful assistant agent sidetrack the show into dull conflict, seemingly designed for the sole purpose of keeping our ace agents in a David vs. Goliath pigeonhole. And then Wendy Carr spends half an episode trying make friends with a stray cat. And episode 8in which a pervy high school teacher gets in trouble and Ford has girlfriend problemsis 50 utterly wasted minutes.

One of Season One’s most interesting threads is found in many of its episodes opening with mysterious glimpses into the life of a man who looks to be Season Two’s next villain. Why not flesh that out a little more to replace the minutiae?

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Jonathan Groff: Just your run-of-the-mill FBI agent working to crack the  D.E.N.N.I.S. System.

As for Groff’s lead turn, I’d say the jury’s still out. While my wife informs me he got famous by simulating on-stage sex with Lea Michele on Broadway and starring in HBO’s Looking, I’m fairly sure Groff is actually a rebranded Glenn Howerton (Dennis Reynolds from Always Sunny). Either way, I can’t figure out if he’s trying to play a sociopath interviewing psychopaths, or if sociopathy is just an affectation of Groff/Howerton. His character and performance are just a bit stilted. But perhaps the series is going somewhere with that.

Mindhunter clearly has some of the better hallmarks of Fincher’s workcinematographically, audiovisually, in terms of character development, and in its demented, mystifying intrigue. It just needs to make up its mind where it wants to go. Hopefully, Season Two will remedy that. In the meantime, it’s definitely a “must-watch” for Zodiac and Fincher fans.

IMDb: 8.9
GRADE: B+

-Sam Adams