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No plaster saint, nor marble effigy of Abraham Lincoln is to be found in THE BETTER ANGELS. Based on the recollections of Lincoln’s surviving family, as spoken by his cousin about his boyhood in Indiana, this is a Lincoln before the legends had taken root, the Lincoln of great promise whose intellectual curiosity and love of learning was nurtured by the two women, the titular Better Angels, who raised him, mother Nancy Hanks (Brit Marling) and stepmother Sarah (Diane Kruger), the widow who loved the boy like her own.
Set in 1817 and a few years after, it is a film of small moments that tell a profound story. Writer/director A.J. Edwards eschews the traditional narrative for what he terms the experiential, and in this he shows the influence of producer Terrence Malick, whose editor Edwards has been. Life as it is lived from day to day, the monotony, the hard labor, and the moments of joy and tragedy played out in the midst of a wilderness that neither welcomes nor rejects its intruders. The dialogue is sparse but more meaningful as a result. Harsh words from Tom Lincoln (Jason Clarke) struggling to eke out a living and to understand the son so unlike him. Gentle words from Nancy and Sarah. Lincoln himself says very little. His inner life as much a mystery to us as it is to those around this odd but sweet child brimming with curiosity and savagely hungry for knowledge. We see him in lingering close-ups as he ponders the world, and in one sublime shot, silhouetted in sunlight, offering a foreshadowing of the iconic profile he will have as an adult.
The narration, which fills in some, but wisely not all, of the gaps, is as stark and as poetic as the black-and-white cinematography. The speaker, Lincoln’s cousin who was taken in by the family when his was decimated by disease, is as mystified by Lincoln as the rest of the family, but his affection is unswerving. The language he uses, like the film’s visual artistry, is simple but powerful. Moments of intense beauty are part and parcel of the intense poverty the Lincoln family experiences in the remote woods of Indiana. No Hollywood-style sentimentalism of the realities of pioneer life then. Dirt floors, sickness, death, and deprivation are shown side by side with moments of transcendence, the cathedral-like silence, the effulgent ice sculptures spontaneously created by wind, cold, and water, and most of all the precariousness of every moment. The most precarious element being that Lincoln’s natural proclivity for learning was met and allowed to flourish. It is all those elements that explain the intensity of affections between family members, the richness of their inner lives that depended less on literacy and more on the strength of spirit.
Some familiar interludes from Lincoln’s legend are addressed, but without the hagiography to weigh then down, their impact is increased. The line of slaves being marched in silence through the woods that forever marked Lincoln’s attitude towards the peculiar institution, the way he was forever scribbling on whatever was at hand, and the reason for his taking up rail-splitting.
THE BETTER ANGELS is an immersive experience into frontier life in the early 1800s. Lyrical and savage, it creates an indelible portrait that may be as close to the truth of Lincoln’s evolution as we can come without access to the man himself.