The Pulpy Joys of Presidential Assassination in Manhunt

The new Apple TV+ miniseries Manhunt turns the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s murder into a zany crime thriller with oddball pleasures.

John Wilkes Booth leaning forward to shoot President Abraham Lincoln as he watches Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington, DC, on 14 April, 1865. (Wikimedia Commons)

The new seven-episode Apple TV+ miniseries Manhunt, about the events following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, has an odd, offbeat, intermittently humorous tone that considerably livens up a tale already fraught with interest.

We start on the night of the assassination, lurking in the bushes in front of the secretary of state’s house. We’re with the would-be killers of William Seward (Larry Pine), who was one of three government officials targeted, though only Lincoln was killed. One of the conspirators is Lewis Powell (Spencer Treat Clark), a former Confederate soldier, and the other is David Herold (Will Harrison), who’s there to hold the getaway horse and keep Powell on task.

LEWIS: “So who’m I killin’ again?”

DAVE: “He’s the secretary of state.”

LEWIS: “What state?”

DAVE: “Look, are you doin’ this or not?”

He’s doin’ this, but what a mess. Servants are unexpectedly brave in barring Powell’s way. His gun malfunctions so he’s forced to resort to his dagger. And though he manages to get upstairs, Seward’s children get into the act, so he stabs at everybody in sight. Some woman starts screaming “Murder!” out the window while he’s knifing Seward in his bed, impeded by flailing Seward-defenders.

Witnessing this bloody botch, Powell’s smarter compatriot escapes, taking the only horse. And Powell, finally extricating himself, runs out yelling for Dave.

Dave’s not here, man.

It’s a fairly accurate representation of what happened, by the way. There’s the usual quota of inaccuracies in the miniseries, but some of the hardest-to-believe scenes stick pretty close to the known facts.

In a later scene, even Seward — a tougher old bird than anyone expected — sees the grisly humor in it, guffawing hoarsely to recall he was already in bed recovering from a life-threatening carriage accident that had occurred nine days before, and yet he survived both calamities. The splints and bandages he was already wearing protected him from Powell’s knife.

And we watch the incredible but true follow-up as the luckless Powell, who’d been wandering lost in the unfamiliar streets of Washington, finds his way back to Mary Surratt’s boarding house at the most inconvenient possible time — just as she’s being questioned by the agents of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Tobias Menzies) about her role in the conspiracy to kill President Lincoln (Hamish Linklater). Powell’s poorly improvised cover story and bloodied clothing make him a likely suspect, and he’s arrested immediately. His highly suspicious arrival there doesn’t do Mary Surratt (Carrie Lazar) any good, either.

The Manhunt account of the assassination isn’t having any of the frequently told tales of Mary Surratt as just some innocent widow woman running a boarding house, even as assassination plots roil under her roof (her son John was certainly in it up to his neck). In Manhunt, Dr Samuel Mudd (Matt Walsh) is regarded as guilty as hell too — a mean, slave-owning, unregenerate Confederate bastard who knows perfectly well he’s helping John Wilkes Booth escape to freedom by giving him shelter and splinting his broken leg. It’s quite a shift from John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) in which Mudd is depicted as an innocent bystander condemned to hell in a Florida Keys prison.

This refreshing version of the events seems to be in accordance with Lincoln scholar Edward J. Steers’s His Name Is Still Mudd, which laid out a great deal of evidence that Mudd knew Booth well before the injured actor showed up at the farmhouse and had been in on an earlier conspiracy to abduct the president. It also gives weight to the accounts of Mudd’s servants — nominally freed slaves, but still held by Mudd in postwar economic bondage — who testified against him at his trial. In the series, Lovie Simone makes a particularly memorable impression as Mary Simms, Mudd’s housekeeper, who stays alert and awaits her chance to extricate herself and her much-abused brother from the hated Mudd household. We see in flashbacks that the Simms family had won their way to freedom in the North when slave trackers abducted her and returned her to Mudd.

There are also delightful scenes characterizing Vice President Andrew Johnson (Glenn Morshower) as the worthless reprobate he was. Informed of the death of Lincoln by the frigidly contemptuous Stanton, Johnson gets up in his long johns, still a bit sweaty and drunk from the night before, and leers, “Y’know, you could be the first person to call me Mr President.”

“Maybe put your hand on a Bible first, Andy,” says Stanton.

In short, what we’ve got here is an acerbic point of view, and we wonder where it’s coming from. Created by Monica Beletsky (The Leftovers), the series has a fine group of directors including neo-noir notables Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress, One False Move) and John Dahl (The Last Seduction, Red Rock West). It’s based on the bestseller Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by historian and Lincoln scholar James L. Swanson.

Best of all, the series features Anthony Boyle as Booth, an up-and-coming Irish actor who’s made a big impression in the World War II–set series Masters of the Air. He’s a good period actor and evokes Booth wonderfully, with the wan pallor, flashing dark eyes, and drooping black mustache of the louche nineteenth-century matinee idol. Boyle claimed in interviews to have loved the mustache he grew for the part. (“It should have got its own credit.”) When in the series John Wilkes Booth is advised to go clean-shaven in order to disguise himself after he kills Lincoln, Boyle puts a great spin of tight outrage on his line delivery when he retorts, “That mustache is the whole signature look!”

Boyle captures Booth’s squirrely insanity, combining a comically touchy, oversized actor’s ego with dark bloody resentments that gradually found a home in the Confederate cause, leading to a vicious hatred of all of that cause’s perceived enemies, with Lincoln and freed black citizens at the top of the list.

Seething in the shadows of his respected actor father Junius Brutus Booth, and his revered actor brother Edwin Booth, who was widely considered to be the greatest thespian of his generation, we see John Wilkes Booth’s dismal look as he’s told repeatedly, even by his fans, “You sure look smaller off stage.” His attempts to get bigger, swearing, “I’m gonna be the most famous man in the whole world,” leads to the maddest, most over-the-top, drama-laden assassination ever conceived, and it’s vividly conveyed in the miniseries. If Booth hadn’t decided to leap down onto the stage after shooting Lincoln in the head at point blank range, to yell his big line, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Freedom from tyrants!” is yelled in the miniseries), as if he were playing one of his own gaudy roles of staged derring-do, he wouldn’t have broken his leg. And with the help of many willing pro-Confederate hands, he might indeed have escaped into the deep South and made it off the continent before Stanton’s forces could track him down.

But of course, Booth couldn’t resist hamming it up. The sheer unlikeliness of this attention-hogging means of assassination gives Manhunt its often-repeated conspiracy-thriller tagline, spoken by Stanton in tones of brooding intensity, “How does a well-known actor commit murder in front of an audience of fifteen hundred people and escape?”

Since Stanton was running the whole show after Lincoln’s assassination, he’s given the lead role in the series, and it’s an odd fit if you know anything about Stanton. Actor Tobias Menzies looks nothing like the man, which I do think is a shame. I could’ve watched endless episodes of some wonderfully portly actor wearing a recreation of Stanton’s massive, grizzled beard, with his owlish spectacled gaze peering over it, directing the manhunt for Booth and investigating the possibility of a larger international pro-Confederate conspiracy to topple the postwar American government.

But Menzies, who plays the role lean-faced and beardless and without glasses, had other ideas for the character, in keeping with the racier modern quality of the miniseries:

When people google Stanton, the main image that comes up are these very whiskery photos of him. I just kind of intuited that that’s gonna be very distracting, loads of extra hair to look at for seven hours. . . . And so I just took the decision to clean that up. . . . I think we were leaning toward the . . . crime thriller sort of genre. And I think [Stanton] did need to be the Humphrey Bogart of the story in a way that we can trust.

The last thing I want in my Civil War–related viewing is Humphrey Bogart, but probably most people would side with Menzies on this. I merely caution other Civil War fanatics who are drawn to watch — or at least to sample — almost everything screened about it that, for all its scholarly foundations, Manhunt takes all the usual, generally goofy liberties of popular media adaptations. This Stanton is most Bogart-ish in that he does much of the investigation himself, like an 1860s Sam Spade, flat-footing around tracking clues and getting tough with suspects and making laconic cracks and so on.

You just have to roll with it. If you can, it’s an enjoyably pulpy ride that sometimes takes on a deliberately surreal quality, as if the creative team had decided to convey the effect of a wacky, distorted dream about the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination. This is partly the delusional John Wilkes Booth effect. Even when awake and seemingly clearheaded, Booth is convinced he’s got to get to Richmond, Virginia, where he believes he’ll receive a hero’s welcome led by Jefferson Davis himself. In one scene, he envisions himself being sworn in as the new president of the revived Confederate States of America, and the images have the look of those feverish paintings fixating on Donald Trump being hugged by Jesus against an American flag backdrop or replacing Washington in a lurid recreation of Washington Crossing the Delaware.

Surely that’s no accident. So though the series is uneven, with many interludes of more typically solemn docudrama, there are some peppery surprises sprinkled with a free hand throughout. Let me put it this way — this is a miniseries in which Patton Oswalt shows up bearded to the eyeballs but with that unmistakably penetrating nasal comedian’s voice, playing Lafayette Baker, a freewheeling Union Army spymaster answering to Stanton during the hunt for John Wilkes Booth. It’s another of the series’s startling oddities that, if you’re not too pious about your Civil War–related media, can really be a kick to watch.