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Lincoln’s Origins, Beyond the Log Cabin

The Better Angels is a portrait of the Great Emancipator as a (very) young man

Braydon Denney as Abe Lincoln in The Better Angels

What hunting vampires and ending slavery—the two activities Abraham Lincoln engaged in onscreen in 2012—have in common is that both seem far beyond the capabilities of us mere mortals. But the flashy axe decapitations in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter have nothing on the feat Daniel Day-Lewis performs in the title role of Lincoln: getting a piece of meaningful progressive legislation passed by a Congress full of white dudes. That most movies portray Lincoln near the height of real or fantastic powers does about as much to make our 16th president relatable as the massive stone monuments we carve in his image.

On the other hand, The Better Angels, the latest film to explore the Lincoln mythos, seems like a conscious effort by writer-director A.J. Edwards to restore humanity to an American-made archetype. Unlike most Lincoln biopics, Angels reportedly draws inspiration from interviews with Lincoln’s family members and forgoes the hero’s journey entirely to focus instead on a time in his life well before Honest Abe began his rise to prominence.

“All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother,” Lincoln is quoted as saying, and Angels is a quiet, bordering on ambient, meditation on that relationship, which ended in 1818 when Nancy Hanks Lincoln died of “milk sickness.” This tragic turn of events, which occurred when Lincoln was just 9 years old, and its aftermath shape the film’s arc.

Angels producer Terrence Malick scouted similar familial territory in 2011’s Tree of Life, but Angels does it sans dinosaurs and in monochrome. The crisp black-and-white is as visually stunning as Malick’s co-sign might suggest. Edwards sets his shots at odd angles and obscures the edges of his frames with fog—capturing the insecurity of childhood and life eked out in spite of the elements—giving the whole film the foreboding of a Jacques Tourneur noir nightmare. The horrors here, however, are simply the realities of daily life for Indiana squatters circa 1817. But they are frightening enough to keep young Abe (Braydon Denney) scared somber, especially after his mother (Brit Marling) falls ill and can no longer serve as a buffer between him and his hard-nosed father Tom (Jason Clarke).

Diane Kruger as Sarah Lincoln in The Better Angels

In this film, The Boy Who Would Be a Three-Day Weekend for Government Employees neither makes grand pontifications nor issues any historic proclamations. His only onscreen exposure to slavery comes late in the film, and though his revulsion is visible, it seems no more significant than any innocent child’s immediate recoil at human chattel would be. There is little apparent foreshadowing for any of Lincoln’s later-in-life deeds, in fact. Young Mr. Lincoln’s most statesmanly act in Angels is arranging for a preacher to give his mother a proper burial, after his widowed father shirks the duty in favor of searching for a replacement spouse.

Tom Lincoln returns far too soon with a stepmother for Abe, but, fortunately, this is not a fairy tale. Sarah acts as a second angel instead of a wicked stepmother, and she takes up where Nancy left off: trying to convince Tom he has a gifted son in need of a good education and encouraging Abraham to persevere instead of retreat within himself. Rather than directly linking these kindnesses to Lincoln’s adult worldview, the director lets viewers make their own associations. Love, not legacy, is the only motivation that counts here, and love, like death, is also an intrinsic aspect of angeldom.

Quite possibly the smallest-scale statement ever made about one of America’s biggest legends, Angels is a soft-focus study of the huge impact seemingly insignificant gestures of human warmth can have. It’s also a celebration of the unseen forces that shape those who grow up to embody the courage of their convictions. Perhaps most aesthetically interesting, Angels also attempts to capture wisdom shared without words, using one of mankind’s most famous orators as its subject. Like the human parts of Malick’s Tree of Life, Angels presents daily life as a dull surface beneath which bubble questions of cosmic significance and existential dread, answered by portents so subtle we only spot them in hindsight. Without a gut-grabbing, critique-baiting centerpiece, however, the implied historic significance of Angels’ Abraham Lincoln is still the main attraction in this gentle character study. Let’s hope that’s enough to draw a crowd of witnesses. As was said of Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, the pure humanitarian loving-kindness in Angels is “a vision of America we cannot afford to let die.”

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