MANHUNT – Review by Diane Carson

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Manhunt examines the U.S. amidst the hunt for John Wilkes Booth.

Far too seldom, complex, fascinating history informs a compelling series, but it does for Manhunt. Though poetic license is used for details and dialogue, the presentation relies on historical records for the still immensely disturbing assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the extensive search for John Wilkes Booth, and the divisive attempts to realize the promise of Reconstruction.

Based on James L. Swanson’s 2006 Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, the series covers April 14 through 26, 1865, in addition to integrating flashbacks to Lincoln’s days before his murder and several developments after Booth’s capture, including a subsequent trial of co-conspirators. The central character is Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s friend and ethical, passionate Secretary of War, obsessed with capturing Booth. Equal time is afforded Booth as he and his friend David Herold flee Washington, D.C., heading for what they anticipate as a hero’s welcome in Richmond. Their encounters along the route and Stanton’s chase reveal some familiar and many astonishing insights into that charged world.

Monica Beletsky, showrunner and primary contributor to every episode’s screenplay, expertly balances emotion and information, many details of the events both compelling and surprising. These include investigation into the larger conspiracy extending to Montreal, charges of an assassination planned against president of the Confederate States Jefferson Davis, Wall Street traders’ involvement, and much more.

The art direction (the settings, the costumes, and lighting) enhance the atmosphere. Three directors—Carl Franklin, John Dahl, and Eva Sørhaug—masterfully juxtapose the multiple plot lines. In addition, the actors present believable characters, with Tobias Menzies a marvelous Edwin Stanton, along with Anthony Boyle as John Wilkes Booth, Will Harrison as David Herold, and Lovie Simone as Mary Simms, a crucial spokesperson and former slave to Dr. Samuel Mudd. Though over a century and a half in the past, Manhunt is history writ large with ironic and sobering parallels to today, adding impact. The seven episodes of Manhunt stream on Apple TV+.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.