Manhunt Review

Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (Hamish Linklater) by the cowardly actor John Wilkes Booth (Anthony Boyle), Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Tobias Menzies) heads the search for the most wanted man in America.

by Ian Freer |
Published on

Streaming on: Apple TV+

Episodes viewed: 7 of 7

On 14 April 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathiser, shot President Abraham Lincoln in the head during a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC. The event is reconstructed in compelling detail in the first episode of Apple TV+’s Manhunt, but it’s to the credit of showrunner Monica Beletsky (The LeftoversFargo) that the rest of the show doesn’t feel anticlimactic. For Beletsky and directors Carl Franklin, John Dahl and Eva Sørhaug not only mount a gripping detective drama, but in the same breath deliver a knotty portrait of a country finding its feet in the aftermath of the civil war.


Adapted from James L. Swanson’s 2007 bestseller Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln’s KillerManhunt is a police procedural, replete with antiquated versions of such classic crime-show tropes as a villain tooling up (with olde-worlde weapons), an obsessive cop married to the job, and a board full of pictures linking suspects. The “cop” in question is Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (a terrific Tobias Menzies), who doggedly traces Booth cross-country, the latter en route to the Confederate stronghold of Richmond, Virginia. Anthony Boyle’s Booth is evil but charismatic, an actor living in the shadows of a more famous thespian father and brother, who is driven as much by a need for the spotlight than any political convictions.

Beletsky pulls off a coup of her own. She takes a 159-year-old case and makes it fresh.

The cat-and-mouse of it all isn’t exactly white-knuckle, mostly because Beletsky takes a decidedly novelistic approach by moving around the timeline, sometimes hours before the murder, sometimes years. It broadens the scope and ambition of the show, resembling Oliver Stone’s JFK, as a Presidential assassination kickstarts an investigation into the highest seats of power; who signed Lincoln’s assassination order slowly becomes the key dramatic question. As well as political intrigue, the freewheeling storytelling also adds an emotional resonance, with flashbacks that cement the depth of feeling between Stanton and Lincoln (Hamish Linklater, not quite Daniel Day-Lewis) and illuminate the former’s obsession with catching his friend’s killer.

The tricksy structure also helps join the dots to wider history — the rights of African Americans to own land and get an education, as represented by Lovie Simone’s Mary Simms — while Manhunt is alive to the present-day resonances, be it governmental intimidation of the press or the threats to democratic processes (Stanton pointedly says in Episode 1, "This is America — we replace our Presidents with elections, not with coups”).

It’s not perfect — it overuses opening episodes with dream sequences — but Beletsky pulls off a coup of her own. She takes a 159-year-old case and makes it fresh.

Well-played and strikingly made, Manhunt is part crime potboiler, part political thriller, part historical overview — and each strand works a treat.
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