“Chasing Shadows: Apple TV+’s Manhunt Falls Short in Thriller Stakes”


The landscape of television entertainment is perpetually peppered with retellings of historical events, but few capture the essence of their dramatic potential. Apple TV+’s recent venture into this territory, with its limited series chronicling the tumultuous 12-day manhunt for Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth, promised to be an exception, anchored in the rich historical tapestry of one of America’s darkest chapters. The series is adapted from James L. Swanson’s acclaimed book, “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer,” yet despite the ripe narrative plucked from the pages of history, the show unfolds more like a series of static dioramas than the nail-biting recount it aims to be.

The tension kicks off immediately as viewers are introduced to one of history’s most infamous villains: John Wilkes Booth, his moustache as foreboding as his schemes. There is a glint of brilliance in the opening sequence where the shot that changed the course of American history rings out. But this fleeting moment of exhilaration is encapsulated in an execution that is anything but thrilling, as what could have been a mounting crescendo, crescendos prematurely.

Director Carl Franklin’s craft appears initially to herald a beacon of hope as he weaves an element of foreboding into the storyline. However, these early flickers of intrigue are soon extinguished as the plot unfolding seems as desperate and futile as the real-life Booth’s escape attempts.

At the crux of the narrative is Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s driven Secretary of War, brought to life by Tobias Menzies’ measured performance. His relentless pursuit of Booth could have provided a robust skeleton for the series to flesh out its drama but despite meticulous attempts to humanize his workaholism and legacy-building, the character remains a sketchily rendered homage to the trope of the white savior.

In the spotlight of the series is Anthony Boyle, whose portrayal of Booth oscillates between allure and cliche. Boyle’s delivery channels Booth’s self-obsession and myth-making, offering a glimmer of dimensionality to a man otherwise shackled to the narrative as a placeholder for fragile masculinity and delusional grandeur.

Regrettably, Hamish Linklater’s Abraham Lincoln stands out for less commendable reasons. Despite the actor’s evident commitment, his grandiose gesturing and stilted speech serve more as a distraction than a tribute, especially in the shadow cast by Daniel Day Lewis’ iconic performances.

One cannot accuse “Manhunt” of shortchanging on historical veracity. Yet, therein lies part of its undoing, as the series seems almost obsessive in its desire to suffocate the viewer with historical precision, from unyielding period details to painstaking expositions clarifying every political nuance. Alliances, betrayals, and the vile legacy of the Confederacy are depicted with near-encyclopedic zeal but to the detriment of the narrative’s drive and suspense.

One unanticipated star emerges amidst this historical recreation—Bryce Dessner’s compelling original score. The enigmatic cello motif associated with Booth sticks to the shadows of a splendid string section that infuses texture and momentum into the series with pieces such as “Sic Semper Tyrannis”, forming the backbone of some of the most arresting sequences in the series.

Ultimately, the series’ well-intended ambition is not enough to save it from sinking into a dreary narrative marshland. The seven-episode arc stretches thin, unable to sustain the promise of intensity. While it possesses the panache of period glory, “Manhunt” lacks the kinetic force necessary to keep viewers truly ensnared.

For those with an affinity for historical drama, “Manhunt” is currently available for streaming on Apple TV+, where it joins a growing catalogue of content seeking to blend education with entertainment. As a foray into the tumult following the fall of a great American president, it may satisfy a need for factual representation, but for thrill-seekers, this series may just be too tranquil to trigger a gasp.

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