The Better Angels
Opens Fri., Nov. 14 at Varsity. Rated PG. 94 minutes.
Lincoln and the log cabin—such is the foundational mythology of 19th-century politics that you can forget how, yes, our 16th and greatest president actually grew up barefoot and poor in frontier conditions that would now be described as Third World. No water but the stream (possibly flowing with typhoid fever), no doctors, no books but the Bible; famine, disease, and howling wolves right outside your door (if you had a door). Kids today complain about spotty Wi-Fi connections and gluten allergies, while the 8-year-old Abe (Braydon Denney) soon suffers the loss of his mother (Brit Marling) and has to survive a harsh Indiana winter while stranded with his young sister and teenage cousin. His father (Jason Clarke) has gone east to find work, maybe, and the kids cower in the cold by the hearth, eating moldy corn they’ve mashed into gruel. Close to starving, here is the future statesman who’ll 40 years later save the union. In 1817, that prospect hardly seems likely.
Filming in muted black-and-white, A.J. Edwards based his coming-of-age tale on period interviews with those who knew Lincoln in his day. It’s not a Greatest Man biopic like those crafted by Steven Spielberg or John Ford; the focus here is on the primal seasons and influences that shape this mostly silent, passive child. His mother is illiterate, loving, and deeply spiritual. His father is a strong, practical woodsman not given to praise. Young Abe sees death up close, meets untamed Indians, and encounters a shackled slave gang. His life experiences are, by today’s broadband standards, incredibly narrow. Yet those, the film implies, are all he will need to lead us.
Edwards’ own name on this somber, worthwhile debut is much smaller than that of his producer, Terrence Malick, for whom he’s worked on past projects (and who initiated this one). The influence is inescapable: long voiceover passages, long silences, characters wandering in the grass, bare trees grasping at the sky, passages of classical music, a woozy sense of plot or momentum, and a God’s-eye view of human foibles. There is humanity here, but it’s studied and seldom passionate. When Abe’s family is blended to include new siblings and mother (Diane Kruger), the notion of reconciliation is implanted with grave, deliberate sincerity—a mood that characterizes the entire movie.
Spielberg and Ford leavened their Lincoln lessons with corny jokes and earthy humor. The Better Angels is by comparison solemn, muddy, and ethereal. Tom teaches his son to wrestle and swing an axe, but it’s the example of Abe’s two mothers—patient, peaceful, attuned to human need—that the filmmakers are quietly celebrating. These women are the “better angels” of Lincoln’s first inaugural address. We know what lies ahead, of course; yet during this long, poetic prelude, it’s a jolt to hear the future predicted so plainly. “He won’t be a backwoodsman for long,” says Abe’s teacher (Wes Bentley). “He’ll make his mark.”