Tuesday, August 1, 2017

REVIEW: 'Manhunt: Unabomber' - Fitz Joins the Task Force and Needs to Make a Huge Decision in 'Manifesto'

Discovery's Manhunt: Unabomber - Episode 1.01 "Manifesto"

In 1995, FBI profiler Jim "Fitz" Fitzgerald joins the Unabomb Task Force. The FBI gets a letter from the Unabomber threatening to blow up a jetliner, and Fitz must determine if the threat is real. In 1997, Fitz confronts the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.

Manhunt: Unabomber employs a fairly interesting framing device to tell its main story. It splits its time equally between 1995 and 1997. In the first story, new FBI agent Jim "Fitz" Fitzgerald has just become a profiler and been assigned to the Unabomb Task Force because he sees linguistic patterns that others cannot. In the second story, Fitz is living off the grid and forced to come back into the fold in order to get the man in custody as the Unabomber to plead guilty. It's a narrative decision that allows Paul Bettany as Ted Kaczynski to be a lead character in the actual series when so much of the Unabomber's identity was a mystery until he was caught. Playing things linearly could have been a smart decision as well. It just would have given Bettany less to do in the role. Plus, it highlights that the story isn't over just because the Unabomber has been captured. This whole investigation had a profound effect on Fitz because he was able to relate to the beliefs Ted lived by. Moreover, there's the pressure to ensure he spends the rest of his life in jail. The government agents name drop a lot of famous cases from throughout the decade to show how slam dunk cases go awry due to technicalities. They don't want that to happen with this case. They need everything to go well. It all sets up the overall thematic links of obedience. That's a core message in Ted's actions. It's an interesting approach in the story as well because of the pressure that Fitz's bosses always place him under. He's always under specific guidelines and that feeling of emptiness and isolation is what led him to empathize with what Ted was writing. It links the two of them together in a strong and visceral way.

These opening episodes of the season are quite strong. It's a reminder that any network is capable of producing a truly great show nowadays. I fully expect Manhunt: Unabomber to become appointment viewing. It's really well done. Of course, there are some problems as well. The exposition throughout the premiere is ridiculously blunt and forced. It's bad and the audience just has to go along with it. This is crucial information for the audience to understand the story. Some viewers likely know all of this information already because they lived through the days when it actually happened. These details are for the viewers who aren't old enough to remember the details of the Unabomber case. But even then, it feels like the show is really laying things on thick with its overall themes and storytelling ambitions. It's one thing for Fitz to just sit done in a room and get briefed on everything the Unabomber has done over the past two decades. But it's another thing entirely where the whole office dynamic is about people yelling at him again and again about doing what he is asked to do and not hinder the investigation with some far-fetched theory about the case. It gets really annoying very quickly. The audience knows Fitz has importance in this case because the 1997 story tells us that from the beginning. Him being continually questioned along the way is important because it's true to what the dynamic was. It's just a little too overbearing to watch.

Of course, Fitz is a complicated protagonist as well. The audience goes into this story knowing that his efforts led to the eventual capture of Ted Kaczynski as the Unabomber. The evidence was thin and the profile was completely wrong before he arrived in San Francisco to join the task force. He saw what others couldn't and always came into some friction when his beliefs contradicted their normal operating procedure. All of the previous profilers seemingly agreed on the profile saying that the Unabomber was a disgruntled airline employee who was fired and sought revenge. He doesn't have an advanced degree. But that information shrouds the perception of what Fitz sees when looking at the evidence. His judgment is corrupted because of the beliefs that the others in the office already have. They are embedding "facts" into his understanding of the case that simply aren't correct. Don Ackerman and Stan Cole want Fitz to write up a paper saying that the Unabomber suffers from erectile dysfunction because it's a good enough explanation for his behavior. That's not what the evidence points to but it's a popular theory throughout the office. Fitz struggles to follow the orders he's been given. He's ultimately proven right not to listen because his skill set comes in handy in making crucial decisions about the case. But he has to earn that distinction. He has to earn having his own team to investigate the linguistics of the Unabomber's messages. He can't just walk in expecting that. That's his character flaw throughout all of this. He simply can't relate to the office hierarchy even though this is a job he always wanted.

This story also takes place at a time when people didn't take profiling or linguistic analysis seriously. It is all about forensic evidence. All it takes is one slip up for the team to discover the Unabomber's true identity. It mostly amounts to chasing a lot of false leads. That approach to things hasn't panned out for the many years this task force has been together. And yet, it's still the genuine belief that it will one day succeed. It's the norm in the industry. It wasn't that long ago that forensic science didn't exist and police work was completely different. This invention completely changed everything and everyone has now adapted to it. There's an order to things. Fitz would love to read the manifesto that the Unabomber has sent to the FBI. He believes the secret to understanding the man and catching him lies in the words on the pages. Meanwhile, it's office procedure to wait until the forensic report comes back with any details of fingerprints or DNA on the pages. No one wants to read the manifesto because they don't want to read the ramblings of a psychotic man. They have all labeled him as crazy and written off being able to take him seriously. They take his actions seriously because he's gotten better and better at making bombs as the years have gone by. But the agents just want a summary report of the manifesto so they can get back to the hard work that will actually produce results.

It's also easy to see why they believe that. They believe the Unabomber to be a man capable of taking down a major flight at a moment's notice. When they surprisingly get a note saying that he's planted a bomb, they need to immediately ground all flights. It's a very tense situation. One made even more complicated by a second note saying it was all an elaborate prank. This essentially serves as confirmation that the Unabomber is much smarter than any of them had previously believed. He's toying with the task force. Thousands of people's lives could hang in the balance based on the decision that Don has to make. He can't spend time worrying about the manifesto or the fringe theories for catching the Unabomber. He needs actionable intelligence now to help him make this difficult decision. Even when Fitz comes to him laying out his argument for why there's no reason to be afraid of a bomb going off on a bomb, it's not a certainty. It's just one man's opinion. It's a well informed opinion based on the knowledge and insight he has learned from examining the various crime scenes and evidence. He's tried to get into the killer's head to better understand him. But he's still ultimately risking people's lives. That suddenly becomes very real for him when he's on the phone with the multiple agencies just listening for everything to be normal or go awry. It's a stressful situation and the show does such a wonderful job bringing the tension out of a very mundane job. It's in that moment where Fitz proves himself to his superiors. It's in helping him make this call that Don is willing to give Fitz an office and team to investigate.

It's already apparent that those efforts are going to pay off eventually. The 1997 story makes that perfectly clear. Fitz is the reason the Unabomber was caught. And now, he's approached to be the reason that the Unabomber is convicted. His superiors want him in a room together with Ted Kaczynski because he caught him. It's because he understands him in a way that could forge a connection in the hopes of getting a guilty plea. Ted is a smart guy who won't fall into any of the familiar police traps. Fitz is a capable agent even though it's also clear that this case exposed something truly traumatizing and frightening in his psyche that has forced him to escape from the world. That's a mystery that should be intriguing to see play out in the scope of the story. But right now, it's all about the similarities between these two characters. One is a serial killer and the other is an FBI profiler. And yet, they have similar mentalities and understand each other. They respect each other because of those beliefs. Ted has enlightenment because he truly believes in what he's been preaching. That's why he sent his messages out into the world for everyone else to see. Fitz is still in turmoil personally. He is still struggling with what these feelings of isolation and emptiness mean for his life. He's forced back into this world but he's not able to be the thing his superior agents need him to be. He's no longer that agent who can force a confession out of a suspect. He's been broken by this case. Ted is still the same guy. Fitz has changed. That evolution is going to be very important to the overall narrative of this story.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Manifesto, Part 1" was directed by Greg Yaitanes with story by Andrew Sodroski, Jim Clemente & Tony Gittelson and teleplay by Andrew Sodroski.
  • "Manifesto, Part 2" was written by Andrew Sodroski and directed by Greg Yaitanes.
  • It's also made perfectly clear that Fitz is awkward when surrounded by big groups of people. He stands out in a crowd because he walks and talks differently. And yet, that change in perception is what makes him such a capable agent. And for the people who actually know him, he's not all that different after all.
  • Taking on the Unabomber case means that Fitz has to leave his family for at least a month. Of course, he gets more and more obsessed with the case when he's actually working on it. So, he's going to be around for the entirety of the case. That will prove to have dangerous consequences for his family life.
  • So far, the only people whom Fitz brings onto his team at the end of the premiere are the partner he was assigned from the beginning and the forensic scientist who also has a way of looking at evidence differently from everyone else. They seem like they'll make an effective team. It'll be curious to see who else joins them in the future.
  • She doesn't make an actual appearance in this episode but it's very clearly Jane Lynch on the phone playing Attorney General Janet Reno. It's easy to be aware of that because the press releases have all noted her involvement in the show. But she has a distinctive voice as well that makes it clear it's her even when the character is just minor for now.
  • Fitz reaches out to a professor colleague of his in 1997 in order to confide in someone about what the FBI has asked of him. He doesn't know if he should talk with Ted. This woman, Natalie, steers him in that direction while also being upset that this will distract from the important work she needs to be doing. And yet, she's also a good friend to Fitz. It will be interesting to see more of this dynamic and what it all means.