Joanna Head's Witness film (C4) about America's postal terrorist was narrowly pipped to the post by BBC2's The Works after a last minute bit of schedule shuffling (this tit-for-tat queue jostling is beginning to get a little childish). Both films betrayed some signs of hasty conversion, from documentaries about an unknown serial killer into cautious profiles of the suspect arrested earlier this month, a one-time math's professor called Theodore Kaczynski who lived in a small shack near the Montana town of Lincoln. Indeed, Head's longer and rather more detailed account began with locals expressing their surprise at Ted's arrest: "He wus pleasant... he didn't look like he wus going to blow anybody up," observed one woman, as if she expected him to skulk around carrying a black orb with a hissing fuse.
But it's quite possible that Ted had blown people up, driven by a passionate hatred of technological society. He struck at an apparently random selection of culprits - engineering students, forestry lobbyists, airline executives and advertising men. There was only one eyewitness description of the bomber, a hooded, shaded face that might have been designed to appear on T-shirts. As Gar Smith memorably put it, the Unabomber became a "poster- boy for social disfunction in 20th-century America".
Both films came to roughly the same conclusion - that the Unabomber's most powerful explosion might yet be in train, a slow-motion, intellectual detonation fuelled by millennial disenchantment. Professor Eric Hickey, the criminal psychologist who helped in the hunt for the Unabomber, argued that Kaczynski was now a "walking timebomb", a potential martyr for the new Luddites who share his views. But the anxiety about the creation of a new "folk hero" might have been a little more convincing if either film had been more resistant to the narrative charms of the lone bomber. The Works revelled in the visual pleasure of a lurid explosion which bore no relation to the Unabomber's detonations, while Head's film allowed some wild exaggerations of his importance to go unchallenged. "Here is someone who controlled the nation," said Hickey, overlooking the fact that one of the greatest technological revolutions ever - the spread of computers - had largely taken place since the Unabomber started his operations. He "terrorised the world's most technologically advanced nation," concluded the voice-over, pouring petrol on this thrilling blaze. No he didn't, but he made a great story all the same.
Reputations (BBC2) was about somebody with a rather better claim to those awed descriptions - Sam Giancana, the Chicago mobster who turned a childhood taste for competitive torture into a controlling stake in America's underworld. Here, too, was a real man hovering on the brink of mythology. "Killing someone made him feel more alive," said one contributor, and the phrase had the selling punch of a movie poster tag-line. Matters were hardly calmed down by the fact that the film's director, Christopher Olgiati, has a good eye for a seductive composition and a fatal attraction to the cinematic cliches of violent crime. This may have been appropriate - Giancana's power was partly a fictional construct, power enhanced by publicity - but it also made you feel a little edgy about the documentary's equal appetite for conspiratorial plotting, in particular the suggestion that Giancana had been behind the assassination of Kennedy. Was this really history, you wondered, or just another terrific storyline?Reuse content