Manhunt Unabomber: Movie Review

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Growing up in the 90’s, I remember hearing about the Unabomber, but I lacked any awareness of who Ted Kaczyinski was as a person or what motivated his crimes. If the Discovery Channel series Manhunt: Unabomber can be trusted, Ted Kaczyinski was a complicated genius who was a pretty good guy, other than the bombings and murder. In fact, it’s only in the last 10 minutes of the movie that you remember the terror Kaczynski caused. For the rest of the 8 part series, viewers are invited along for a gripping narrative of a tender, lost soul that is on par with the movie Monster (film about Aileen Wuornos) in efforts to humanize its subject. Manhunt does not portray Ted Kaczyinski as a brutal killer but rather as a smart, kind, and vulnerable person who was traumatized into losing his humanity. Is it all true? I have no idea, but I think the ideas are worth exploring.

I agree with the theory that many notorious serial killers and mass murders might not have turned to violence if they had social support and deep, personal attachments, especially in early childhood. Although Ted’s story lacks some of the elements of early childhood abuse and trauma that many murderers seem to share, he is portrayed as someone who was inhibited from forming meaningful human connections due to an above average intelligence and an underdeveloped social compass. This form of broken attachment combined with later life events that caused deep traumatic rifts in Ted’s psyche seem to have set the stage for the man who eventually resorted to killing in order to be heard.

In this respect, I think Manhunt told a very important story. Understanding the human side of people who have done loathsome and fearful things is a worthy endeavor. Especially in a story about someone who turned to violence, I always find myself looking for the moments of humanity that explain why it happened. Coming from a mental health background, we don’t ask the question “what’s wrong with you?” anymore. We ask, “what happened to you?” I tend to see “bad” people as traumatized children who were robbed of the connections, security, and self-worth they deserved. Of course, NONE of this justifies any act of violence, but I sleep better at night believing that murderers are created instead of being born evil.

The creators of this show spent a very intentional amount of time allowing viewers to empathize with Ted in order to bring about such moments of empathy and understanding. For instance, a whole episode is based on Ted’s childhood and adolescence in which the Harvard experiments, childhood social traumas, and intense feeling of being a reluctant outsider are explored in depth. Especially the way the infamous Harvard experiments of 1962 were portrayed, I found myself deeply hurting for the innocent little boy that Ted was. It seems like the series wanted you to spend time affiliating with the protagonist in order to bring home the overall point of the show: Ted Kaczyinski’s crimes were not the inevitable workings of a madman. He’s a murderer of our own making.

Much of the series’ running time is also spent validating the ideas expressed in Ted’s infamous manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future. It’s not that the ideas are without merit, but I thought it was interesting that the series defended Ted’s overall thesis with such little scrutiny. At one point, I wondered if the series seemed to be so enamored with Ted Kaczyinski because of how much of the story was told from the point of view of the lead criminal profiler on the case, who developed a deep affection for Ted after years of chasing him. But ultimately I concluded that the entire series seemed just a little bit smitten.

One other note I’d like to mention is that Ted’s family was beautifully portrayed. His brother, David Kaczynski, played by Mark Duplass, is possibly the most endearing and sympathetic character in the whole series. I found the inner struggle of Ted’s brother to be one that allowed me to feel the whole range of emotions alongside the character. And in real life, I can’t imagine the anguish Ted’s family went through. What befalls the family of a murderer is not something we usually give much consideration, and I respected this series for giving all sides of the story a voice. Also, an honorable mention for great characters goes to Jane Lynch’s portrayal of Janet Reno. I was cheering when she came on screen. She brought an air of sympathy and warmth to Reno that was refreshing. What a perfect role for her to play!

While the series has what I perceived as a significant philosophical leaning towards defending Ted Kaczynski, it does present an important look into the mind of a prolific killer. Even after all these years, I think there is still plenty to ponder with the Kaczynski case, which certainly includes the Manhunt themes of what could drive a person to commit such heinous acts against their fellow humans.

Movie Review Reflections

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