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'Manhunt' dramatizes Lincoln's assassination, and the 12-day search for his killer

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. On Friday, Apple TV+ presents the first two episodes of a new seven-part historical miniseries. It's called "Manhunt," and it dramatizes the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the 12-day hunt for his killer, John Wilkes Booth. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, five days after the end of the Civil War in April 1865, has inspired filmmakers for more than a century. And that's not an exaggeration. In 1915, almost 110 years ago, director D.W. Griffith released "Birth Of A Nation." That was his epic silent movie that recreated in careful detail the shooting of Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre. Other portions of that film were less careful and a lot more odious. Griffith presented the Ku Klux Klan as heroes and gloried in cartoonish racist stereotypes. A century later, in 2012, another influential filmmaker, Steven Spielberg, cast Daniel Day-Lewis in his impressive historical movie called "Lincoln." But Spielberg intentionally avoided restaging the assassination itself. In between those two movie milestones have been many, many artistic examinations of Lincoln's life and death, from films and television to the theater. One stage musical, 1990's "Assassins" by John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim is, in my opinion, the best take on the subject ever produced and still is vital and thought-provoking whenever it's revived, which is often.

But now comes "Manhunt," a seven-part Apple TV+ miniseries created by Monica Beletsky. She was a writer on Season 3 of TV's "Fargo," the season where Ewan McGregor played a dual role, so she's got some instant cred. And she's working from a well-received source material, James L. Swanson's Edgar Award-winning 2007 book "Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln's Killer." As the story is presented in this new production, it's almost like a period piece "Columbo." We see the criminal - in this case, Anthony Boyle as John Wilkes Booth - plan and commit the murder. Then we see the lead investigator - in this case, Tobias Menzies as Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's secretary of war - pursuing leads and deciphering clues to catch the elusive killer.

Scenes set before the assassination make clear the tensions around the country as the Civil War came to an end. Secretary of State William Seward got the news, delivered by Stanton himself, that Confederate General Robert E. Lee had just surrendered. This was five days before Lincoln's assassination. Larry Pine plays Seward. And his warning after Menzies, as Stanton, delivers the good news is not only so prescient about what was about to happen but is pointedly resonant today.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MANHUNT")

TOBIAS MENZIES: (As Edwin Stanton) Lee's army was without a white flag.

LARRY PINE: (As William Henry Seward) So?

MENZIES: (As Edwin Stanton) They surrendered to us with a dish towel.

(LAUGHTER)

PINE: (As William Henry Seward) I'll draft a press release for the international community. But we should refrain from claiming a conclusive blow until every major general knows the fight is over and their side has accepted it.

MENZIES: (As Edwin Stanton) The press already know. I've ordered cannon-fire illumination. Everyone is ready to celebrate, Bill. Lee surrendered.

PINE: (As William Henry Seward) Lee and his followers can be extremists.

MENZIES: (As Edwin Stanton) We'll celebrate. We won the damn thing.

PINE: (As William Henry Seward) I'll celebrate when they show us no more bloodshed.

BIANCULLI: Another early scene in "Manhunt" presents Booth's plan to assassinate Lincoln as at least partly based in coincidence. Booth, played by Anthony Boyle, is drinking at a bar adjacent to Ford's Theater, where "Our American Cousin" is playing. Portraits of Booth's father and brother, who, like him, are stage actors, hang on the barroom wall. And a fellow patron, who recognizes John Wilkes Booth, sits next to him at the bar and strikes up a conversation. Booth doesn't know the man but soon learns a few facts that shape Booth's murderous plans.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MANHUNT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You won't mind me saying, I think you'd be much more famous, like your brother or your pa, if you played the heroes. Why don't you?

ANTHONY BOYLE: (As John Wilkes Booth) You know, tomorrow I'm going to be more famous than anyone in my family.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah?

BOYLE: (As John Wilkes Booth) I'm going to be the most famous man in the whole world.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Really? What show are you in?

BOYLE: (As John Wilkes Booth) "Our American Cousin."

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Why I ain't seen you on stage?

BOYLE: (As John Wilkes Booth) I haven't made my entrance yet.

BIANCULLI: "Manhunt" is one review where I don't have to worry much about spoiler alerts. Abraham Lincoln dies early in the first episode, and John Wilkes Booth gets caught near the end of the last one. It's the in-between part that seems less familiar and that drew me in. There are a lot of things here that may be new to many viewers, from the depth of the many conspiracy theories to the clues leading investigators to Booth's eventual hiding place. But as with all historical dramas of this type, you can't presume that everything presented is fact. Also, some segments of the story are staged either with too much clumsy exposition or with moments of jarring anachronisms. When Patton Oswalt, as a detective rounding up his squad, tells them, if you see something, say something, it just feels wrong. But enough of "Manhunt" feels right, from the narrative itself to Lili Taylor's appearance as Mary Todd Lincoln, to justify the time spent watching it.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed "Manhunt" on Apple TV+. On tomorrow's show, we talk with Peter Pomerantsev, who argues that fact-checking doesn't stand a chance against effective propaganda. His new book is about a man he describes as the forgotten genius of propaganda. Pomerantsev co-founded a project recording Russian atrocities in Ukraine to combat Russian disinformation. I hope you can join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU'S "INDEPENDENCE DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.