Young Mr. Lincoln: The Better Angels

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11/05/2014 4:00 AM |

The Better Angels
Directed by A.J. Edwards

When Lincoln takes center stage in the movies, the tone is one of wonderment that our country could have produced even one such man as him—even Spielberg and Kushner’s realpolitik couldn’t resist the spectacle of Honest Abe as spellbinder, his anecdotes staged with the same time-freezing magic as his cameos in other films. The Better Angels takes the same route as John Ford in Young Mr. Lincoln, returning to the icon’s unformed backwoods early days to scrounge for crumbs of insight into the person, and the land, that made a national monument.

This is the avowed intention of The Better Angels from its outset, as it opens with Lincoln’s widely circulated, almost certainly spurious quote, “All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother” (scholars tend to agree that the line is more accurately attributed to Pinterest). Set beginning in 1817, Lincoln’s ninth year, and continuing through Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s death from milk sickness and Thomas Lincoln’s remarriage to Sarah Bush Johnston, the film places young master Lincoln (Braydon Denney) in an episodic texture-of-childhood narrative anchored like Tree of Life, but with two Jessica Chastains (Brit Marling smiles at a grasshopper alit on her finger in the pouring rain; Diane Kruger wanders through meadows trailing a hand behind to caress the tall grass), and a softer-focus hard-but-loving dad (Jason Clarke, with heartland-dad lockjaw).

Indeed, Writer-director A.J. Edwards makes his feature debut after an apprenticeship on Terrence Malick’s last several films; Malick is a producer here, and, like Lincoln, a conspicuous object of veneration. There is a homely voiceover (from Lincoln cousin Dennis Hanks), and a camera that rarely if ever stops moving, circling the characters, often from dramatic low angles, as they themselves twirl through field and forest in a ballet of remembrance. Many of cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd’s images—wet leaves, inked-outline bare winter trees—have an inspiring sense of natural beauty, but equally often the decision to shoot in black and white widescreen seems to provide picturesque cover for a reliance on rustic cliché. The silveriness of wheat and sky and skin passes as a reference to Matthew Brady, but, especially when pretty boys wrassle shirtless in the wheat fields, the more relevant antecedent seems to be Hollister ads. (Previous movie-god Lincolns Henry Fonda and Daniel Day-Lewis have embodied the world-historical grace of a man who poked fun at his own ugliness throughout his life; funnily enough, Ellar Coltrane, star of the year’s most successfully miraculous-seeming coming-of-age story, has a Lincoln-esque look.)

Shooting for transcendence in every shot, Edwards aims to evoke a life marked for moral greatness, in hard-won loving harmony with the best of its surroundings. But without Malick’s daring leaps of chronology, geography, and structure, with consecutive shots linked by nothing save their essential Emersonian inner beauty, The Better Angels ends up projecting its luminosity onto some fairly pedestrian stuff. Young Abe is dreamy in a rough-hewn world, an unpolished rural genius crying out for the polish of book learnin’. His alleged profound sensitivity comes through mostly by association with Marling’s whispering, ethereal mother and Kruger’s infinitesimally more worldly model; Edwards relies heavily on wordless reaction shots of delicate-featured newcomer Denney, juxtaposed with his lives-of-the-saints biographical symbols: father splitting rails, slaves in chains, an American flag. When a log-cabin schoomaster asks his charges what Jesus did when he was young, it’s less mystery than homily. And that little boy grew up to be…

Opens November 7 at the Landmark Sunshine