Watching the early years of Abraham Lincoln’s life as laid out across the black and white canvas of The Better Angels, one gets the distinct impression that writer/director A.J. Edwards spent a significant amount of time watching The Tree of Life and the annotated works of Terrence Malick. Malick himself serves as a producer here, and the flavor of the film is decidedly dreamlike as we watch young Lincoln (Braydon Denney) shaped by those adults invested in his upbringing. It’s Lincoln’s story but it’s told through the eyes, and narration, of Lincoln’s cousin, Dennis Hanks, as he recounts how the boy became a man.
Lincoln’s parents, Thomas (Jason Clarke, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and Nancy (Brit Marling, The East), balance each other out, one harsh and realistic and the other earthy and ephemeral. But his mother passes away when Lincoln is merely nine years old, and Sarah (Diane Kruger) becomes his primary female influence. It’s these three adults who shape him per Edwards’ script, and yet, it matters less who the film is about and much more about how it’s filmed and painted across the screen.
More often than not, we’re lulled into a sense where the natural ambient noise or Hanan Townshend’s score is enough to provide a backdrop to the film and we don’t actually need dialogue. One could talk about the plot, and about the ways that Christian Protestantism is worked in through the words of those who raise Lincoln or the preacher, the way that God’s benevolence is sought and believed in, even while tragedy strikes in this tough, natural world. But it’s really the sense of the movie that one walks away with: the beauty of water flowing, the sense of trees and sky, the way that these child actors and their seasoned adult colleagues portray a simplification of life and spirit that stands in sharp contrast to our overly-complicated lives.
I didn’t love The Better Angels but I was strangely entertained, intrigued by the film’s sense of itself in black and white with a score that matched what was shown. We sense the love of Lincoln’s mother, the desire for approval from his father, the maternalistic care of his sister. It’s a testimony to the power of the Lincoln story, and a smart entry for those looking to build on Spielberg’s Lincoln. Dreamy and ethereal, it paints a picture we can believe in of the one of our nation’s great thinkers, and leaders, as a boy who becomes a man.