Many recent Hollywood blockbusters have taken well-known fictional characters and depicted their earliest adventures in prequels or origin films. With THE BETTER ANGELS, it appears that the origin film trend has now encompassed historical figures because the film portrays the childhood of Abraham Lincoln. THE BETTER ANGELS is the debut film from writer/director A.J. Edwards, a collaborator of Terrence Malick who worked in various roles on The New World, The Tree of Life, and To the Wonder (Malick also serves as a producer of THE BETTER ANGELS).
Considering that Lincoln is generally regarded as the greatest U.S. President THE BETTER ANGELS isn’t the first film to depict the earlier years of Lincoln. John Ford directed Henry Ford in Young Mr. Lincoln in 1939, though films about Lincoln’s origins stretch back at least as far as the 1913 silent short From Rail Splitter to President. Thankfully, THE BETTER ANGELS doesn’t do anything as hokey as other origin films and portray sequences like young Lincoln putting on his first stovepipe hat. In fact, if you miss the opening narration you might not even realize that this film is about young Abe Lincoln at all and think it is about no particular boy growing up in the nineteenth century (and is perhaps why the title was changed from the metaphoric Green Blade Rising to THE BETTER ANGELS, a famous phrase from Lincoln’s first inaugural speech). There’s a certain beauty in that subtly, but it also robs the film of the historical impact it probably should have considering its subject.
THE BETTER ANGELS begins in 1817, shortly after young Abe Lincoln and his family moved to Indiana as recounted by his older cousin, Dennis (Cameron Mitchell Williams), who also serves as the film’s narrator. The film depicts several major events in young Abe’s life, including the loss of his mother (Diane Kruger), learning to accept his stepmother (Brit Marling), his first encounter with slavery, and the little formal education he had as child from a devoted teacher, Mr. Crawford (Wes Bentley). Most of all, THE BETTER ANGELS is about the relationship between young Abe and his father, Tom (Jason Clarke), a strong-willed man who somewhat disapproves his son’s preference of studying over working.
There is much to THE BETTER ANGELS which is serene and peaceful, and the influence of Malick is obvious, particularly with the film’s ethereal tone partially provided by the black and white cinematography. The absence of color from this film is a curious choice and I’m not sure it services the movie to be in black and white. There are many beautiful landscapes and excellent shots of nature that would’ve looked stunning in color instead of the crystal-clear digital-looking black and white. I’m curious why Edwards decided to film it in black and white because from a narrative standpoint it did not seem necessary.
Which leads to the most significant issue of THE BETTER ANGELS – the equally colorless narrative. Lincoln is a fascinating historical figure, and his early years should be particularly interesting material for a film. But similar to Malick’s own work, this film mostly depicts Lincoln’s childhood in an understated way outside of the few significant happenings, like the death of his mother. Because of that, it’s not a particularly engaging film. Even the most patient Malick fans might fight it difficult to stay invested in a film that is largely about boys farming and getting into trouble. It doesn’t help that the conflict between Abe and his father is equally understated, which makes the film’s central narrative difficult to grasp.
Patient history buffs will likely enjoy THE BETTER ANGELS because of its exploration of Lincoln’s early years, but most others might find the film too slow-moving for their taste.
Film Review Rating 3 out of 5 : See it … It’s Good
THE BETTER ANGELS opens in select theaters nationwide on Friday, November 7.