14 May 2015

An Extraordinary Experience: The Better Angels

I can't recommend this incomparable new film, which came out last year, too highly. It's literally incomparable; it's like nothing I've ever seen before.
Braydon Denney as the child Abe Lincoln

The Better Angels is the story of Abraham Lincoln's childhood in frontier Indiana. But it's not exactly a story; what this film sets out to do is show you what the world was through his eyes, the eyes of a quiet boy who was open to everything around him.

"Thoughtful" and "intelligent" don't begin to describe the miracle that this child was -- the words are not big enough. Lincoln came from almost the simplest possible background (indeed, it was the basic human way of life, after hunter/gatherer), yet grew into a great leader for our unruly nation when we needed it most. And not the least part of his greatness was that he could conceptualize and make clear the profound moral meaning inherent in our country's very design, in language that was direct and also beautiful. Yet, as he did not hesitate to mention, his mother could neither read nor write.

The film opens when Abe is about nine, and is partially narrated by an orphaned older cousin who came to live with the family. But there is little talk, and little explanation is needed. Instead you see. hear, and experience the world as this boy experienced it. The desperately hard work of subsistence farming, the steadfast love of his mother (and, in his way, his father, too), the overwhelming beauty of the untouched wilderness out of which the little family carved a homestead -- these are all both marveled at, and accepted as natural, by the boy Abe.

Pain and loss occur without warning, and he accepts them as a child does, without any idea of asking "why me?." It's just the way things are. And he also experiences the indescribable joy of being a healthy young creature romping freely in a lovely and welcoming wilderness, testing the limits of his body and his mind.

The film does actually tell a story -- things do happen -- but that's not what it's about. It's about what it was to be Abe Lincoln, in the exact space and time that he inhabited. It's another world to us, of course. I don't know if there is a moral to be drawn there but I suspect not; all the natural beauty in the world won't turn any of us into a Lincoln. But it does allow us to be with him, to understand and at least partly feel what he felt.

As for the production itself, it is in black-and-white, but it's so beautiful you forget about that. The casting is very strong, but something has to be said about the astonishing boy playing Abe, Braydon Denney -- he actually looks like he could grow up to be Lincoln, with a shock of dark hair and the most open and clear gray eyes.  
Abraham Lincoln in 1846. This is about as dressed-up and presentable as he got -- which shows you how unimportant such considerations really are
A few links:
The Better Angels is available through Netflix an Amazon