New York - A particularly brutal scene in the critically acclaimed series, Manhunt: Unabomber, shows what can be described as psychological torture of a young student at Harvard University.
Tightly wound leather straps keep Ted Kaczynski’s face in place, while a mass of electrical wires trails from the top of his head and into the machines that measure his responses. Kaczynski is at ease if a little bit nervous at first – he is, after all, a willing participant in Dr. Henry Murray’s experiment. But what starts with Murray, a renowned psychologist, and Kaczynski exchanging pleasantries, turns into cruel emotional degradation. But this isn’t straightforward fiction – this is a take on the true story of how Kaczynski became the notorious Unabomber, a lethal serial bomber who targeted people and places associated with airlines and universities for nearly two decades.
Discovery Network’s depiction of Kaczynski’s trail of destruction can be hard to watch at times – the scenes with Murray are particularly unsettling – and a myriad of questions about the ethics of human experimentation is hard to shake off.
Watch the trailer here:
In this case, says Brian D’Arcy James, the actor who stars as Murray in the series, there is no defense. James, a veteran actor, spoke at a press event for the series. He is known for his work on Spotlight, 13 Reasons Why and the Toronto Film Festival favorite, Molly’s Game.
To what extent Murray’s experiment contributed to Kaczynski eventually becoming a serial bomber, however, is debatable. Murray’s experiment explored psychic deconstruction by humiliating the participating students to the extent that they experienced intolerable stress. Murray was reportedly working for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the precursor to the CIA, and the experiment was allegedly intended to help with questioning tactics.
A DIFFICULT CHARACTER TO PLAY
Yes, says James, Murray was a very well-respected professor but “in this case, he was dealing with some very unethical practices. What makes it even more poignant (is) that the innocence of this young person (was) being corrupted in this way.” Kaczynski was 17 at the time. A moral, not just an ethical line, James says, was crossed. This made Murray’s character all the more difficult to play.
“When you’re playing someone real, you try to find out as much as you can about them. Clearly his reputation as a renowned psychologist at such a bastion of higher education like Harvard did speak for itself in a way. But I wanted to find out what there was to him that would allow him to make this kind of decision. To find it OK (to do this). In this specific scene, Murray looks indifferent to Kaczynski’s suffering. James says he approached the role by clinging to the real-life doctor’s idea that he’s not doing anything wrong, rather, that he’s doing everything right and for the greater good of the country.
“But there are a few moments that he has a moment of sobriety, a crack in the wall to consider or ask himself, ‘what have I done here?’ Maybe he does realise he’s doing something wrong. Yet, he continued to groom these young men to trust this man only to be battered down,” says James.
Did Murray’s experiments turn Kaczynski into the Unabomber? “The argument is that this was one of the things that led to this perfect storm of a mind that would contribute so violently to the world like he did,” says James. “One of the things that led to being so detached from human beings.”
James is joined by Sam Worthington as the FBI agent who eventually captures Kaczynski, played by Paul Bettany (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War). Glee’s Jane Lynch and Sex and the City’s Mr. Big, Chris Noth, round out the star-studded cast.
James, who delivers a chilling performance, has developed a knack for playing non-fictitious roles. In the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, he starred as Matt Carrol, one of the dogged reporters who uncovered years of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. He does feel a sense of responsibility to do right by the “real people” he has played but says there is always some wiggle room. “You have to give your own sense of what makes a person tick and take a little bit of artistic license without going haywire.”