A Scintillating Historical Thriller: Our Review of ‘Manhunt’

Posted in Apple TV +, What's Streaming? by - March 13, 2024
A Scintillating Historical Thriller: Our Review of ‘Manhunt’

A criticism we often hear of serious period dramas is that they’re boring. But they needn’t be! As Oppenheimer recently demonstrated, the secret to a good period piece is that the entire team – from the writer to the actors to the key grip – must understand that the people being depicted were living in their present, not our past. The characters in a period piece don’t know how this story will end, and so the stakes for them should feel high because they were. Rather than just providing a low-energy paint-by-numbers recreation of the past, artful period pieces pay careful attention to mood, demonstrating what events felt like rather than simply cramming in as much information as possible. Apple’s new limited series, Manhunt, is one such artfully done period piece.

In Manhunt, we watch Edward Stanton (Tobias Menzies), America’s War Secretary, as he navigates the search for John Wilkes Booth after his very public assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. A truly terrifying – and exciting – time in history, the 11-day Manhunt for the most wanted fugitive America had ever seen gives contemporary thrillers a run for their money. What creator Monica Beletsky understands better than anything is how to use suspense to create stakes: while we the viewer know Wilkes will be caught and America will survive this crisis, Stanton and his team do not.

When semi-famous actor Booth shot Lincoln during a night out at the theatre, The Civil War’s end had been negotiated mere days before. The assassination of The Union’s President could well have spelled an end to peace. After all, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was still alive and well. The assassination of Lincoln could have been the end of America, and Manhunt makes you feel that intensity. The day after the murder, Stanton tells a reporter, “I care about the country we were about the repair.” The reporter simply replies, “Is that possible now?” And thus, the absolute necessity of catching Booth and his conspirators is established.

While the detailed, dreary and dark set design and quality score add a sense of time and place; the heart of this series comes from its performances. Menzies is excellent, as always, as a man who is heartbroken to see his dark prophecy come to fruition; it is Stanton who warned Lincoln not to attend the performance of Our American Cousin where he was later shot. The reason? Stanton was concerned about death threats. Threats Lincoln shrugged off with the naivete of a child.

Played with impressive realism by Hamish Linklater, Manhunt manages to portray Lincoln as the accomplished but imperfect human he was, rather than to lionize him the way 20212’s Lincoln does. Is it heresy to say I prefer Linklater’s subtle portrayal of Lincoln to Daniel Day-Lewis’? Lewis Hive, don’t hurt me! Another standout performance comes from Lovie Simms, who portrays Mary, a formerly enslaved person who risks her safety to hold her the man who once owned her accountable for his role in the assassination. Simms has a knack for finding the drama in a scene without chewing on the scenery. Her performance is intense but subtle

Anthony Boyle, who portrays Booth, must also be credited with an incendiary performance. Boyle captures both the narcissism and delusions of grandeur that motivated the well-known actor to kill Lincoln and to think he get away with it. His sneering racism and his egotistical insistence on disproving the father who called him “useless” make this character feel like a baddie without veering into caricature. You hate Booth, but you also feel a bit like you know him…

Armed with excellent actors and an astounding true story, Manhunt shines most when the efforts to capture Booth are at their most climactic. When soldiers race to find Booth, your heart races, too. Shots of furious men on horseback and blazing barns ratchet up the tension to the point where you won’t be the least tempted to look at your phone.

Ultimately, Manhunt is truly memorable television. It’s both quality historical drama and a damn good thriller. I wish there were three more historical dramas just like it…

This post was written by
Sarah Sahagian is a feminist writer based in Toronto. Her byline has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Refinery29, Elle Canada, Flare, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. She is also the co-founder of The ProfessionElle Society. Sarah holds a master’s degree in Gender Studies from The London School of Economics. You can find her on Twitter, where she posts about parenting, politics, and The Bachelor.
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