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THE HUNT FOR JOHN WILKES BOOTH

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Michael Hall, Narrator
Director: Tom Jennings
Audio:  Dolby 2.0
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.33:1
Studio:  A&E Home Video
Features:  None
Length: 94 minutes
Release date:  May 20, 2008

ďSic Semper TyrannusĒ =  Death to all tyrants, shouted by Booth as he fled Fordís theatre

Film ***1/2

April 1865 might be the most momentous month of Americaís history.  The Civil War finally ends, the union is preserved, and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the first such tragedy in our history.   The largest manhunt in history was launched, and while most of us know these parts of the story, what is frighteningly revealed in this special is how Booth almost got away, and how the whole country was only a breath away from plunging into civil war all over again.   Had Lincoln lived, the South would have gotten off easier than it did under following presidents.  As usual in acts of terrorism, Booth actually made everything worse for his own cause instead of being idolized as he predicted.

It is very common throughout history for men to talk big about hurting or even killing their enemies.  But rarely does anyone come close to doing what a combination of alcohol, peer pressure, and sheer misguided bravado can make a man do.  But Booth was actually none of these, he just hated the north and Lincoln in particular.  By most accounts, Lincoln was calm and even cheerful when the war ended and it was in this mood that he went with his wife Mary to Fordís Theatre.  John Wilkes Booth, a handsome actor who saw himself as destined to prevent the south from going down in defeat, knew the theatre well, and in this wonderful special from A&E every step is retraced through the theatre and beyond.  We feel like we are actually there, and as usual the expert historians provide details weaved effortlessly through the well-done dramatic recreation. 

Booth was already a radical because although he grew up in the north, he attended the hanging of abolitionist John Brown in 1859 and had already purchased a grey uniform and upon Lincolnís election made fiery anti-abolitionist speeches to anyone who would hear them.  The Union won the war, but she lost her heart and soul with Lincoln's death. 

To add insult to tragedy, scavengers took bits and pieces of Lincolnís clothes and even the building in which Lincoln died.  Flags from Fordís theatre were taken and even Boothís pistol was taken.  The theatre was closed permanently.  No crime scenes were sealed.  Actors were suddenly harassed all over the country, and even anyone who resembled Booth was harassed and attacked.  Two men were killed just because they gloated over the presidentís death, and one more was chased down by a huge crowd and was only spared because he got on his knees and recanted.  Thousands of Union troops were mobilized again and southern soldiers refused to lay down arms.  The whole war nearly erupted all over again when Lincoln was killed, the first such assassination in the United States. 

As an interesting footnote to Floridians like me, Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set Boothís leg on his way to the Potomac River, was imprisoned in Fort Jefferson, off the coast of southern  Florida after being convicted of assisting the assassin, although  most historians agree that he was not aware of what Booth had done.   He was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson after he helped yellow fever patients in prison.  To this day, his family continues to work to restore his reputation. 

Video ***1/2

No problems, standard for modern television.  Dramatic re-enactments are well-done in every aspect.

Audio ***1/2

Well-mixed, even the background music is gripping and nearly on the level of a major motion picture.

Features (Zero Stars)

I am not sure what else could have been added, but it is what it is.

Summary:

Another well-done A&E special, it neither condemns nor glorifies its subject but merely tells it like it was.  The ninety minutes fly by, even for viewers who know the story well.  And every viewer will learn something new about one of our nation's greatest losses.

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