REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
Who is the greatest president in American history? Although Abraham Lincoln served in the office a mere 49 months, many scholars consider him worthy of the distinction.
President Lincoln occupied the White House during the tumultuous Civil War, when the future of the Union wavered precariously in the balance. During it, in his capacity as Commander in Chief of Federal troops, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This military fiat freed three million slaves in those portions of Southern states, which were still under Confederate control. Lincoln’s iconic status is buttressed by the fact that he was assassinated.
In the period between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration, seven southern states seceded from the Union. However, it was not until after Lincoln’s inauguration that South Carolinian troops fired on Fort Sumter, thereby igniting the Civil War.
“The Better Angels” draws its title from Lincoln’s first inaugural speech. In it, the newly elected 16th President expressed his desire to avoid a military confrontation with the Southern states. He invoked conciliatory nomenclature, including the evocative phrase, “the better angels of our nature.”
Several distinguished filmmakers have already tackled the Lincoln legend. D.W. Griffith, had a long and illustrious career cranking out silent films. However, he only helmed two talkies. One of them was 1930’s “Abraham Lincoln,” with Walter Huston in the eponymous role. In 1939, John Huston, the son of the lead actor of the aforementioned film, made “Young Mr. Lincoln.” In it, Henry Fonda portrayed Honest Abe during his early adult years as a self-taught attorney. In Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed 2012 “Lincoln,” Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed the title character during the Civil War. In the process, Day-Lewis became the first male thespian to win three Oscars in the lead actor category. In all three of these films, Lincoln was already a grown man, who seemed destined for some measure of greatness.
“The Better Angels” adopts a fundamentally different treatment of the subject. The black and white film takes place circa 1819. The United States has only existed for a mere four decades. In this Federal era, the country remains a fledgling experiment in democracy. Here, Lincoln (Braydon Denney in an unmannered performance befitting the film) is a mere lad. He and his family are living in a dirt-floored log cabin on the Indiana frontier. There is no guarantee that Lincoln will ever transcend his humble origins.
In “The Better Angels,” young Lincoln is presented as being conspicuously intelligent. He is often immersed in silent contemplation, detached from the harsh realities of frontier life. The lad has memorized the speeches delivered by his idol, Henry Clay, the renowned orator and U.S. Senator from Kentucky. As depicted here, Lincoln is surrounded by a bunch of provincial bumpkins. His stepbrother, John, ruefully opines, “He thinks he’s better than us.”
Early in the film, Lincoln’s mother, Nancy (Brit Marling), dies. Lincoln is being raised by his roughhewn, poorly educated father, Tom (Jason Clarke). The strict disciplinarian disapproves of his son’s penchant for reading books and daydreaming. Instead, Tom wants to imbue his son with manly survival skills, such as chopping down trees, planting crops, and how to wrestle. His stepmother, Sarah (Diane Kruger) is illiterate, but is instrumental in encouraging Abe to pursue an education.
“The Better Angels” can also be distinguished from other Lincoln biopics and, for that matter, virtually all other films. It boasts a distinctive narrative and visual style. Terrence Malick produced the film, intending to direct it himself. Instead, A.J. Edwards, Malick’s collaborator and co-editor since “The New World,” wrote and directed the film. The Malick influence is readily apparent. One could easily mistake “The Better Angels” for a film made by Malick himself.
In lieu of a traditional narrative, the film relies upon a series of ethereal, beautifully composed shots. Cinematographer. Matthew J. Lloyd used a waist-level, wide-angle Steadicam and silvery monochrome film stock. It recalls the rapturous visual motif that Emmanuel Lubezki brought to Malick’s past three features. The result is stunning.
Edwards also borrows some of Malick’s frustrating stylistic conceits. What sparse dialogue the film contains, is muffled and difficult to divine. The retrospective voiceover narration by Cameron Williams, who is supposed to be Lincoln’s older cousin, Dennis, is delivered in a colloquial backwoods drawl. Already the sound is often intentionally obfuscated. As a consequence, several scenes prove confusing. This includes one vignette in which boys mischievously tie a dead raccoon onto a dog with unfortunate results.
Although the film is full of lyrical imagery, it contains carefully observed, graphic details. Collectively, they convey a vivid sense of the challenging circumstances that confronted frontier families. We are provided with a deglamorized notion of how challenging their lives were. Although parenthetical to the film, a scene in which barefoot, enshackled slaves are marched past Lincoln exudes enormous resonance.
The elegiac tone created by the film’s visuals is nicely complemented by Hanan Townshend’s score. It contains ambient sounds drawn from nature. The film also benefits from some well-selected classical tracts and folk tunes.
“The Better Angels” is definitely not for everyone. Those who require a well-defined storyline will struggle with the fact that “The Better Angels” possesses only the most rudimentary of plots. However, those who enjoy the works of Terrence Malick will delight in the rapturous sensory experience fashioned by his protégé.
***1/2 PG (for thematic elements and brief smoking) 95 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.