Given that he articulated his entire ideology in an enormous manifesto, there’s no burning need to hear any more from Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, who killed three and maimed 23 over the course of his 17-year reign of terror, carried out from his remote Lincoln, Montana, shack. Nonetheless, those morbidly fascinated by the notorious boogeyman can now listen to him expound on his life, actions and philosophy courtesy of Unabomber: In His Own Words, Netflix’s alternately insightful and clumsy four-part series (premiering Feb. 22). More of a familiar recap than an eye-opening exposé, its main contribution to the dialogue about the fiend are audio clips from both the sole in-depth interview he ever granted, as well as a 1958 Harvard University experiment in which he participated—and which some blame for partially turning him into a sociopathic mad bomber.
“It was simply anger and revenge, and I was going to strike back. Try not to get blown up,” Kaczynski laughs during the title credits of Unabomber: In His Own Words, whose calling-card interview excerpts come from a prison chat he had with Earth First! environmental activist Theresa Kintz. The revenge to which he refers was, in a straightforward sense, against the techno-industrial state, a system he reviled—thinking it curtailed freedoms and led to social and individual horrors—and advocated destroying, including by murderous means. According to writer/director Mick Grogan’s docuseries, which benefits from the input of Kaczynski’s brother David and sister-in-law Linda (who eventually discovered he was the Unabomber and turned him in), those beliefs were the byproduct of lifelong alienation from his peers, and from women, which bred in him a resentment that sent him on his destructive path.
Despite boasting a genius-level IQ, attending Harvard at age 16, and subsequently becoming a mathematics professor, Kaczynski wasn’t all there from a relatively early age. Grogan pinpoints a number of factors for Kaczynski’s devolution: a childhood stint in the hospital for illness that left him emotionally estranged from his mother; an adolescence with few friends; and, crucially, his participation in a three-year psychology study (run by Henry Murray, and supposedly funded by the CIA) in which his most treasured convictions were aggressively challenged. Utilizing a few talking heads with a fondness for armchair psychologizing, Unabomber: In His Own Words makes the case that this experiment was central to Kaczynski’s transformation into a sociopath. Yet that argument feels painfully inadequate; there’s a sense here that Grogan is stretching with this hypothesis, considering the raft of other circumstances that seem to have played a key role in knocking his screws loose.
Kaczynski—now 77 and serving a life sentence without possibility of parole—was unique in the sense that he was both a committed political terrorist and a textbook serial killer, and his troubled upbringing, and development from gifted academic to dangerous hermit are explored in detail, driven by David’s recollections of multiple incidents in which his brother behaved in a condescending, off-putting, or downright wacko manner. Of particular interest is an anecdote about a brief relationship with a woman—which Kaczynski wrote about in one of his numerous heavily-coded notebooks (eerily reminiscent of John Doe’s journals in 1995’s Seven)—that ended in rejection, and begat murderous fantasies. When a psychologist later opined that Kaczynski’s desire to have a sex change was perhaps born from a more fundamental frustration over not having a girlfriend, he apparently snapped—thus underlining the deep-seated mix of confusion, rejection and disaffection that led him to consider homicide as a viable course.
Such lethal urges were, of course, married to radical anarchist desires to tear down industrial society as the only means of salvaging humanity and the environment. “I hate the system not because of some abstract humanitarian principle but because I hated living in the system. I got out of it by getting into the mountains, but the system wouldn’t let me alone,” Kaczynski muses to Kintz, explaining his decision to exit the grid in favor of his tiny shed in the middle of Montana’s vast wilderness (save for his bus trips to Salt Lake City and California to deliver his explosive packages). The political and personal were one for Kaczynski, and Unabomber: In His Own Words is best when drawing conclusions that are supported by the man’s own on-the-record statements.
That includes Kaczynski’s routine slander of law enforcement shortcomings, which he exploited to successful ends. By cutting himself off from the world, choosing geographically diverse and seemingly unrelated scientific and academic targets, switching up his bomb-construction methods, and carefully avoiding leaving DNA evidence on his devices, Kaczynski proved that it wasn’t difficult to evade FBI detection. Only with his nationally published manifesto did he give himself away, tipping David and Linda off to his true identity. It was a mistake born from hubris, which was also what led him, upon his capture in 1996, to reject his lawyers’ plan to avoid a death-penalty sentence by pleading insanity, since doing so would invalidate the anti-societal beliefs at the core of his being—beliefs which, the series indicates, continue to be valued by some on the radical fringe.
For considerable stretches, Grogan’s series is a rehash marked by pedestrian commentary, and worse, by aesthetics that veer between the functional and the downright cheesy. Amidst the usual archival TV news reports and straightforward interview sequences, Unabomber: In His Own Words stages a host of reenactments that are crude even by the middling standards of the modern docuseries format. Its graphical interludes are even less polished, lowlighted by the recurring sight of a ticking time bomb detonating so the screen becomes engulfed in flames. There’s no need for such chintzy embellishments, and their employment leaves the impression that Grogan is excessively compensating for a dearth of bombshells.
If Unabomber: In His Own Words offers up nothing mind-blowing, there remains some value to its portrait of the way extremism often stems from ostracism, and the anger and resentment that inevitably follows. Moreover, as underlined by a late sequence in which Kaczynski ponders joining forces with Muslim terrorists—“I’m wondering what extent it might be useful to our movement to carry on discussions with the Muslim militants and see whether there is sufficient common ground there for any sort of alliance”—his story, however unique, is also part of a much longer tale still playing out around the world today.