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For Your Consideration: 'The Better Angels'

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The Better Angels, directed by A. J. Edwards
If Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography Team of Rivals brought the administration of Abraham Lincoln to life, Steven Spielberg's dour, overstuffed hagiography Lincoln seemed to stiffen the 16th President of the United States back into a statue. The Better Angels, the directorial debut of A. J. Edwards, an assistant to Terrence Malick on The Tree of Life and other films, going back to The New World, attempts to pierce the veil of saintliness, not by tearing down the image of the man but by focusing on his childhood, long before he had become the man we now venerate. Edwards, who directs his own screenplay, picks up the story in southern Indiana in 1817. There, Lincoln's father, Thomas, after losing all of his land holdings in Kentucky, had moved his family to a log cabin in what is now Spencer County.

There is little dialogue in the film, and what there is often hard to understand, one of several signs of Malick's influence on Edwards's style: what comes across is that the modern counterparts to these 19th-century Hoosiers, extremely taciturn by nature, are chatterboxes in comparison. In fact, the names "Abraham" and "Lincoln" are rarely (if ever) heard, even when the boy's first schoolmaster calls roll in his classroom. Most of the information the viewer needs to follow the story is related by voiceover (another Malick influence), based largely on the remembrances of Dennis Hanks, a cousin who grew up with Abraham Lincoln (the character is played in the film by newcomer Cameron Mitchell Williams), as interviewed for a book by Eleanor Atkinson.

We see how Lincoln's intellectual gifts were fostered by his mother, Nancy (the ethereal Brit Marling), who dies about a year into the story from milk sickness, when the family's cows graze on white snakeroot -- a type of poisoning that caused many deaths on the American frontier. His father, played with stoic severity by Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) crosses the Ohio River into Kentucky, leaving young Abe and his sister (as played by McKenzie Blankenship, seemingly younger than her brother, although she was two years older) to fend for themselves for the winter. The father returns with a second wife, with three more children in tow, who is just as beautiful and fostering as Nancy, played with golden felicity by Diane Kruger (Farewell, My Queen).

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The film does not make clear to which of these maternal figures Lincoln was referring in the quotation attributed to him -- "All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother" -- shown at the beginning of the film, as the camera examines the marble surfaces of the Lincoln Memorial. The title, drawn from the first inaugural address, seems to indicate it may have been both, although Lincoln gave just as much recognition to his older sister, who helped raise him. If you are hoping to learn from the film the childhood sources of Lincoln's later greatness, you will be disappointed, for there is little so heavy-handed here. On the boy's first trip away from the log cabin, he watches a group of slaves in shackles and chains pass by. There are references to his honesty and his bookishness, but all we see is potential and the rough necessities of the life he lived.

The film is slow-moving but beautifully shot, with the wilds of Indiana recreated in the Mohonk Preserve in the Appalachians, 90 miles north of New York City. The final Malick trait that shows up is the gorgeous music, with some original contributions by composer Hanan Townshend, including arrangements of other composers' music. The playlist includes some beautiful passages from Bruckner's seventh and eighth symphonies, the prelude to Act I of Wagner's Lohengrin, the slow movement of Dvořák's ninth symphony. For some of the Americana flavor, there are bits of Copland's Rodeo, John Adams's Shaker Loops, and symphonies by Alan Hovhaness -- no. 2 ("Mysterious Mountain"), no. 60 ("To the Appalachian Mountains"), and no. 50 (Mount St. Helens: Volcano"). Just as in Malick's film, the music speaks more than the characters, giving voice to thoughts and atmospheres.

This film opens today at the E Street Cinema.

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