Thursday, March 14, 2024

Manhunt, on Apple TV+

In John Ford’s classic Prisoner of Shark Island, Dr. Samuel Mudd is portrayed as an innocent man unjustly convicted of abetting the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. That view has predominated in the media, thanks to the efforts of the Mudd family, who elicited a letter from Jimmy Carter attesting to their ancestor’s innocence. Not so fast argued historian James L. Swanson, who linked Mudd to John Wilkes Booth well before the assassination. Edwin Stanton makes the case against Mudd and the rest of the co-conspirators, even including Jefferson Davis, in creator Monica Beletsky’s seven-episode Manhunt, adapted from Swanson’s book, which premieres tomorrow on Apple TV+.

Lee has just surrendered, so Pres. Lincoln will finally enjoy an evening at the theater, against the advice of his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. For those wondering, Lincoln’s friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, the subject of
Saving Lincoln, does not appear in Manhunt. Obviously, Lamon’s substitute that night was not as diligent.

Grieving his friend, Stanton immediately takes charge of the investigation. Given Booth’s apparent involvement in an underground Confederate fifth column network, the manhunt falls under his jurisdiction. However, Stanton also understands the need to assert and maintain his authority, because he mistrusts the new president, Andrew Johnson, a unionist Southern Democrat, who was put on the ticket to shore up border state support. Right from the start, Johnson clearly signals his intention to scale back Reconstruction. However, he supports Stanton’s relentless hunt for Booth, especially since he was also one of the cabal’s targets.

The Mudd family is not going to enjoy
Manhunt, because it unequivocally portrays him as an accomplice, at least after the fact, as well as a racist and often violently abusive former slave-owner. Indeed, it would be a mistake to call Manhunt revisionist history. It is more like revisionist-revisionist history. After years of portrayals of Mudd as a railroaded Samaritan and Johnson as the victim of partisan politics, Beletsky and company, by way of Swanson, argue they were both villains who profoundly damaged our country. Frankly, after watching Manhunt viewers will wonder why Kennedy and Ted Sorenson included one of the Republican Senators who voted against convicting Johnson in Profiles in Courage.

Beyond that,
Manhunt is a decent dragnet-thriller and even better political thriller. Stanton’s pursuit of Booth is just as important as his efforts to maintain the scope of Reconstruction. They are different manifestations of the same desire to preserve and defend America. Series directors Carl Franklin (One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress) and John Dahl (Red Rock West and The Last Seduction) clearly know how to build suspense on both the large and small screens, which definitely broadens the accessibility of Manhunt. However, the history and politics are never dumbed-down.

Tobias Menzies is also terrific as Stanton, portraying him as a keenly intelligent man of principles, who does not suffer fools gladly. However, he also expresses all the grief and idealism that made him so compatible with Lincoln. Glenn Morshower (Agent Pierce in
24) is appropriately slimy as Johnson, in a flamboyant but not cartoony kind of way. In contrast, Patton Oswalt is badly miscast as Union Army intelligence chief Lafayette Baker. He looks conspicuously out of place, because he lacks sufficient gravity.

Blumhouse regular Betty Gabriel adds a lot of depth and soul in the relatively small role of Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s friend and former servant. Yet, Lovie Simone really delivers an emotional body blow to Mudd’s reputation as Mary Simms, the doctor’s former slave and much exploited housekeeper.

Anthony Boyle is annoyingly verbose as arrogant, self-mythologizing Booth, but that might make him unpleasantly true to life. However, Matt Walsh’s cold, contemptuous nastiness as Mudd is bitterly chilling.

should be considered a patriotic series, because it celebrates great Americans like Lincoln and Stanton, while also scorning those who took up arms against their country. It should give viewers a fuller understanding of the true enormity of the Lincoln Assassination. Highly recommended for fans of historical thrillers and period dramas, Manhunt starts streaming tomorrow (3/15) on Apple TV+.