We live in the era of superhero movies, so it's only fitting for one of America's greatest heroes to get a proper origin story.
The Better Angels
According to IMDb and as of this writing, Abraham Lincoln has been (or will be) portrayed in movies and on TV over 350 times, from 1911 (His First Commission) to 2015 (The Gettysburg Address), and by the likes of everyone from Henry Fonda (1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln) to Louis C.K. (during the 2012 season of Saturday Night Live). Joining these actors and others is a young man making his onscreen debut, Braydon Denney, in a 2014 film from a first-time director.
The Better Angels is the story of a very young Abraham Lincoln. The film takes place in Indiana the early 1800s, when Lincoln was about eight-years-old. The future president lives off the land with his strong-but-silent father, Tom (Jason Clarke); his doting mother, Nancy (Brit Marling); as well as a sister and a cousin. The times are lean, the work is hard, and the fun is sparing, but through it all young Abe gains wisdom that can only be amassed through life experiences. One of those experiences is the death of his mother, with whom he was very close. Another is the later introduction of his father’s new wife, Sarah (Diane Kruger), with whom he becomes just as close.
Because we live in the era of superhero movies, it’s only fitting for one of America’s greatest heroes to get a proper origin story. Abraham Lincoln gets one in The Better Angels and it’s superb. What makes it so great is how the story is told.
So many depictions of our 16th president – now matter how good – are loaded with facts, details, and recitations of historic speeches and quotes and conversations. All of this is fine, but it’s all been done. The Better Angels writer/director A.J. Edwards prefers showing Lincoln’s story as opposed to just telling it.
The story is visualized through a stark, at points bleak, black-and-white lens, making good times look bearable and bad times look desperate. But there’s also a beauty to it, a rich texture to the nature-heavy settings photographed by cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd. The wood is old and strong and the fruitful earth is at times stubborn, but the water runs cold and the sun shines no less brightly than it does in color. It’s not exactly an Ansel Adams piece, but the efforts to be one are noticeable.
Edwards’ script is as bare as the winter fields of Indiana, with an efficiency of dialogue that is fitting for a family of five living in harsh conditions in the early 19th century. Children are seen, not heard, and anything worth talking about among the adults might get in the way of working the land. Even punishments are dealt – and received – in silence.
While told along a chronological timeline, the film is more a collection of moments in young Lincoln’s life than it is a story about those moments. This collection is the genius of the film.
Combined with the sparse dialogue and the stark black-and-white imagery, the moments collected in the film, shot loosely (sometimes too much so) with a handheld camera, are presented like clips from a home movie that had been edited together on one reel and found in an attic decades later. The subject is now a known quantity, but with this “home movie,” how those moments from the subject’s past then shaped the subject into today’s known quantity become brilliantly clear in hindsight. Through these moments in the film, the viewer will learn about Abe’s honesty, his stoicism, his intelligence, his work ethic, his first exposure to slavery, and the driving force behind his considerable compassion.
There are also moments when others recognize Abe is different. He’s smarter than the other kids (and many adults) and by a considerable distance. His mothers know it and both make efforts to get him a proper education. It’s when Abe is in school that his teacher, Mr. Crawford (Wes Bentley), notices the same. It takes Abe’s father longer to come around because that’s how men were in the early 19th century: learn a trade, not a lesson. Thankfully, both mothers won that fight.
The title The Better Angels has a dual meaning. One is a direct reference to the closing statements of Lincoln’s first inaugural address:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The other would be the better angels of Lincoln’s childhood: his two mothers. His bond with his birthmother is undeniable, and a devastating quote from his step-mother solidifies her meaning in his life:
“I’ll never take your mother’s place. But I’ll love you as she did. If you choose to love me less, I’ll still love you the same.”
A.J. Edwards has studied at the foot of director (and this film’s producer) Terrence Malick, and that influence shows in Edwards directorial style. This is not a bad thing, as even a mediocre film made by someone inspired by Malick is worth a look. Fortunately, this film is far above mediocre and somewhere closer to masterful.