Manhunt, Apple TV+, review: the hunt for Lincoln’s killer is reduced to a plodding US history lesson

Anthony Boyle and Will Harrison star in Manhunt
Anthony Boyle as John Wilkes Booth and Will Harrison as his assistant David Herold - Apple TV+

American critics have given positive reviews to Manhunt (Apple TV+), and being American might have something to do with that. To British eyes, it will seem like a painfully slow account of the 12-day search for John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

I’m guessing that every schoolchild in the US learns about Lincoln. Perhaps his death left indelible scars on the American psyche, and simply putting it on screen does enough to stir the emotions. There is certainly no dynamic storytelling here, just a drawn-out true-crime procedural.

We begin on the day of the assassination – April 14, 1865 – but the narrative frequently flashes to the past. This happens with irritating regularity in the opening episode. You want to yell: just tell the story in a straight line.

The hero and moral centre of the tale is Edwin Stanton (British actor Tobias Menzies), Lincoln’s Secretary of War, who is determined to track down the killer. The identity of the assailant is not in doubt: after shooting Lincoln in the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, Booth jumped onto the stage and declared himself to the audience before making off on horseback. An actor by trade, Booth loved the spotlight.

Lili Taylor and Hamish Linklater as Abraham and Mary Lincoln
Lili Taylor and Hamish Linklater as Abraham and Mary Lincoln - Apple TV+

Booth is also played by a Brit: Anthony Boyle, impressive in another recent Apple TV+ series, Masters of the Air. For those unfamiliar with Booth, it is an interesting case study. An avowed Confederate, he was unpleasantly racist, spewing out the N-word at the sight or mention of black slaves.

Boyle also makes him comically vain, motivated as much by a desire for infamy as by his political leanings. When an accomplice suggests that he changes his appearance, an outraged Booth retorts: “You want me to shave my ’stache? Are you out of your goddamn mind? It’s my signature look!”

Booth and Menzies are solid performers (Hamish Linklater is a slighter presence as Lincoln) but the series plods through seven hour-long episodes when it could have done something thrilling with three or four. The assassination scene itself is devoid of tension. Some of the dialogue feels hackneyed, as when Stanton tells Lincoln’s sobbing wife: “Mary, stop it. This is no time for hysterics.”

And should we take all this as truth? When Lincoln dies, Stanton says: “Now he belongs to the angels.” Apparently, there has long been debate over whether he said “angels” or “ages”.

So it’s difficult to know if what we’re seeing is a representation of history, or America’s answer to The Crown.