A completely black screen, and then in white letters appears: All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother. Lincoln
A few images of what could be the Lincoln memorial but we never get to see the famous huge Lincoln statue of him sitting in his chair. In the film there’s a young boy called Abe.
The title The Better Angels (2014) refers to Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friend. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
These are the only hints that you’re watching a film depicting several years of childhood of the future president.
I stumbled upon the trailer and after a few seconds I was convinced I was watching the trailer of a new Terrence Malick film. I was wrong but I was not far off.
The film is directed by A.J. Edwards who was camera operator on the making of of Malick’s The New World, and was one of the editors on that film and the subsequent Malick films, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups. One of the many producers on the film is none other than Terrence Malick himself.
Now, having seen the film, I can only confirm that the film is pure Malick. The look, feel, atmosphere, use of voice over, the importance nature is given in the film is all 100% identical to Malick. We see children play and a steadycam follows them and lingers on the shadows they leave behind, the camera films a house from the outside and from a little distance while it captures a few slices of life: the list of typical Malick shots and scenes is endless, or is basically the entire film. The only difference is that the film is in black and white.
The film is told via a voice over of the character cousin Dennis Hanks with a heavy southern accent very reminiscent of that of Sissy Spacek in Badlands, or Linda Manz in Days of Heaven or the soldiers in The Thin red Line.
There’s little or no plot, Lincoln’s mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln (Brit Marling) dies of milk sickness, we see the young Lincoln learn to plow and work the field, we see his father (Jason Clarke) a carpenter smooth some wood with a plane, the arrival of new a stepmother (Diane Kruger), some scenes in a classroom with Wes Bentley as the teacher, some slaves in chackels… mostly just little moments that somehow marked the young boy to become the president he went on to become.
The film is very impressive in it’s minimalism and the cinemascope black and white cinematography is great (perhaps there are too many wide angle lense shots as do the recent Malick films), but does not reach to the great heights of the early great Malick films, although it’s far superior to his hugely dissappointing recent efforts To the Wonder and Knight of Cups.
The Better Angels is a very promising debut and has not been picked up by any of the local festivals and received a minimal multiplatform release in the US, so if you which to see it you’ll have to import a DVD. I hope I’ll have the chance to one day see it projected on a big screen to pass a more conclusive verdict.