Abraham Lincoln’s life has been depicted on screen many, many times. He is one history’s most noble individuals and one of America’s greatest leaders. His time as President is marked as one of the nation’s most pivotal eras and he will be forever engraved in the collective consciousness of mankind. The new film The Better Angels doesn’t examine Lincoln’s life as a gifted lawyer and politician but as a young boy, struggling to survive in a humble beginning and finding acceptance and love from a stern father, who wants the best for his family but shows it in a harsh way.
Taking place in the Indiana wilderness of 1817, The Better Angels tells the story of young Abe Lincoln (Braydon Denney), a young boy trying to do right by his tough father Thomas (Jason Clarke) and make it in the middle of rural nowhere. The film doesn’t focus so much on plot as it showcases the Lincoln’s in their natural habitat which is a log cabin in a secluded part of America. Throughout the film, Abe’s strength is tested as well as his patience, two traits that would later come to embody the future brilliant leader. The main conflict in The Better Angels lies between Abe and Thomas and their awkward father/son relationship which involves tough manual labor and the occasional branch-whipping due to Abe’s random moments of childhood insolence.
Rather than taking the predictable biographical approach, The Better Angels relies more on atmosphere through cinematography and direction. The film is shot in black and white and the camera angles are unique in that they mostly seem to be from the vantage point of the ground looking up at the actors. These unorthodox shots are joined with a camera which seems to circle the actors in an almost 360 degree approach. Newcomer writer/director A.J. Edwards and cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd are responsible for this artistic approach and the results are rather lovely. Black and white is a bold choice for any film to be shot in and The Better Angels looks just terrific.
Actor Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) is pretty sensational as the no-nonsense Thomas Lincoln. His toughness toward Abe actually explains a lot in regards to Abe’s future attitude and intelligence. Had Thomas not have been so stern with Abe, he probably would have been a weaker leader and maybe never have become President. America is probably better off because of this. The film’s performances are strong and there are even subdued but affective turns from Diane Kruger and Wes Bentley. Unfortunately, their talents are painfully underused, especially Bentley.
While the story doesn’t really go anywhere in The Better Angels, the film is more of a painting in motion, a black and white photograph that shines brightly with the sun and shows a young boy with a good heart and a strong work ethic. We have scenes of him tending farm with Thomas and we have him wrestling and swimming with other kids. Produced by Terrence Malick, his is a very different side of Lincoln and The Better Angels should be commended for taking a fresh approach to one of history’s most important figures.