Manhunt TV Review

Tobias Menzies leads an interesting but overlong chronicle of the immediate aftermath of the Lincoln assassination.

Plot: Based on the Edgar Award-winning non-fiction book from author James L. Swanson, “Manhunt” is a conspiracy thriller about one of the best known but least understood crimes in history, the astonishing story of the hunt for John Wilkes Booth in the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

Review: The life and untimely death of Abraham Lincoln have been fodder for film and television since the invention of the medium. Before that, books and stage plays told the story of the President who ended the Civil War, abolished slavery, and died unceremoniously. But, in all of the tales of Honest Abe and his killer, John Wilkes Booth, few have chronicled the tumultuous aftermath between Ford’s Theater and the capture of those who perpetrated the heinous murder. Aside from Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, which focused on the trial of Booth’s accomplices, we have never gotten a full retelling of the events. Manhunt dramatizes the events and flashes back and forth over the six years before and four years after Abraham Lincoln’s death. It is a fascinating tale that brings various theories to light while focusing on historical figures whose importance has long gone underappreciated. Led by Tobias Menzies as War Secretary Edwin Stanton, Manhunt is a well-made political thriller that has a lot to say but spends too much time on some plot threads that slow down the pacing.

Manhunt review

Manhunt wastes no time in getting events underway as Abraham Lincoln (Hamish Linklater) is shot within the first half of the premiere episode. As the tension builds leading towards the fateful hour in Ford’s Theater, none of the events linearly take place. The pilot shifts between the minutes, hours, and days leading up to Booth shooting Lincoln and gives us the vantage of not only John Wilkes Booth (Anthony Boyle) but also his accomplices David Herold (Will Harrison) and Lewis Powell (Spencer Treat Clark). With multiple assassinations plotted simultaneously, including failed attempts on Vice President Andrew Johnson (Glen Morshower) and William H. Seward (Larry Pine), the chaotic proceedings fall on Edwin Stanton to pull together. Leveraging lead investigator Lafayette Baker (Patton Oswalt), Manhunt plays with many storytelling conventions right off the bat. At first, the method of Booth’s escape from Washington to rural Maryland and the care of Samuel Mudd (Matt Walsh) feels like a tense thriller, but then the tone shifts.

In the immediate hours after the death of Lincoln, Edwin Stanton takes on the role of trying to keep the tenuous peace between the Union and the Confederacy. This means quickly trying to find the assassin who killed his close friend while also helping to run the recently unified country. Despite his high ranking in the Cabinet, Stanton takes on a detective role as he visits the crime scene and dispatches others to investigate. At times, Manhunt echoes the police procedural format of Law & Order but set in the 19th century. There are also elements of spycraft on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line which gives way to long-running conspiracy theories about the assassination plot baked into the narrative of this series. Was John Wilkes Booth tasked with the murder by Confederacy President Jefferson Davis? Was Vice President Andrew Johnson somehow involved? Were Booth’s co-conspirators Mary Surratt (Cary Lazar) and John Surratt (Joshua Mikel) more involved than at first though? All of these are addressed throughout the series.

Knowing the main timeline of the events depicted in this series, I was surprised to learn just how much I did not know about some of the historical context of the era. Abraham Lincoln is often depicted as a great orator and brilliant leader, but Hamish Linklater portrays him as less polished and more of an everyman. Lili Taylor evokes Mary Todd Lincoln’s manic state of mind. Anthony Boyle follows up his excellent turn in the AppleTV+ series Masters of the Air with a menacing portrayal of Booth while comedic actor Matt Walsh is quite good as Samuel Mudd. Tobias Menzies is excellent as Edwin Stanton, playing him as the beacon of hope we often associate with Lincoln. Lovie Simone is also a pleasant addition here as Mary Simms, Dr. Mudd’s slave who becomes a key witness during his trial. Everyone in this cast does solid work with a few exceptions. As much as I love Patton Oswalt, his inclusion here sticks out noticeably. While Oswalt has proven himself a solid dramatic actor, he does not fit the part of Lafayette Baker.

Clocking in at seven, hour-long episodes based on the book by James L. Swanson, Manhunt‘s propensity to flash back and forth in the timeline can be quite jarring with some episodes shifting four years in the past to five minutes before the assassination followed by three days before within fifteen minutes. Created by Monica Beletsky (Fargo, The Leftovers, Friday Night Lights), Manhunt spends a great deal of its running time on the search for Booth and the capture of his associates with the first episode reserved for the assassination and the final for the trial. The intervening five episodes, written by Beletsky as well as Tim Brittain, Ben H. Winters, and Jan Oxenberg, build up the repercussions of Lincoln’s death and how divided the country was after the end of the war. Directing duties are split on the series between Carl Franklin (Mindhunter), John Dahl (Rounders), and Eva Sørhaug (Let the Right One In). All three directors manage to elevate the material to a cinematic level without sacrificing the character focus, but the series still feels like it spends a lot of time on supporting stories that pad out the main narrative when they should have been the focus of a story all their own.

Manhunt review

Manhunt is a unique dive into a specific chapter of American history that has not been adapted for the screen to this degree. It plays loose with some historical details and wallows in conspiracy theories a bit too much which undermines the powerful supporting stories that should have been at the forefront of this tale. In telling the stories of the former slaves and others impacted by the death of Abraham Lincoln, actors like Lovie Simone and Betty Gabriel shine while Tobias Menzies makes a case for getting more substantial leading roles like he does here. As good as those aspects of Manhunt are, a heavy reliance on the titular search for John Wilkes Booth makes what came before and after feel perfunctory. The miscasting of Hamish Linklater and Patton Oswalt notwithstanding, this is a solidly constructed period procedural. Manhunt is good but could have been much better.

Manhunt premieres on March 15th on AppleTV+.





About the Author

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Alex Maidy has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. A Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a member of Chicago Indie Critics, Alex has been's primary TV critic and ran columns including Top Ten and The UnPopular Opinion. When not riling up fans with his hot takes, Alex is an avid reader and aspiring novelist.