The Better Angels. Written and directed by A. J. Edwards.
Release Date: November 7, 2014.
“The short and simple annals of the poor”; this is how Abraham Lincoln described his childhood (quoting Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”) and A. J. Edwards apparently believes him. Edwards’s debut film, The Better Angels, begins by establishing the contrast between Lincoln’s humble roots and the eventual heights he would reach–letting us hear the sound of a frontier river (probably Pigeon Creek) before presenting several imposing shots of the Lincoln Memorial. The river is a good metaphor: it is part of the rustic uncivilized world but always moving forward, just like Lincoln as he moved from rural Indiana to the pinnacle of the American social ladder.
Although Lincoln (Braydon Denney, in his first role) says very little and most of his actions are mostly reactive, his narrative is almost a classic “hero’s journey.” Withdrawn and unambitious for most of the film, Lincoln’s inner self slowly emerges under the care of his mother, Nancy (Brit Marling). That trajectory gets disrupted when his neighbors start dying of milk sickness. Lincoln enters his “ordeal” after Nancy succumbs, leading to a period of isolation and hardship as his father Thomas (Jason Clarke) leaves the children while he finds a new wife in Kentucky. When Thomas returns, Lincoln finds a new mentor in his stepmother, Sarah (Diane Kruger), and his schoolteacher (Wes Bentley). Out final image of Lincoln is a subtle reference to Young Mr. Lincoln, as he walks up a rise, beginning the grander hero’s journey toward his triumphant and tragic fate.
Edwards is mimicking the style of his own mentor, Terrence Malick. I think Malick’s films are generally beautiful but emotionally cold. I expected the same from Edwards but nevertheless found myself taken in by The Better Angels. The fact that I deal with many of the film’s historical figures regularly in my job may have been part of what appealed to me, especially because the script and actors do well by most of them, despite minimal dialogue. Thomas, in particular, comes across as complex and human–a luxury rarely afforded him by historians. His infamous aversion to Lincoln’s educational pursuits displays itself early, as he takes a book away from Lincoln and forces him to re-plow a field. Later, after Nancy requests they move closer to a school, Thomas abruptly removes Lincoln from the dinner table and sits him in a corner facing the wall. However, the script later makes it clear Thomas believes Lincoln will be better-served by practical skills than academic knowledge. One of the last scenes confirms this, as Thomas teaches Lincoln to wrestle–a skill Lincoln would use to earn respect after he sets out on his own–and holds the receptive student up in his arms beaming, “That’s good! That’s good!” The film suggests having a foot planted in both worlds provided the foundation for Lincoln’s later greatness.
While all of this makes for an effective exploration of Lincoln’s childhood and life on the American frontier, Edwards’s debut suffers from much of the idealism and oversimplification that sometime plagues Malick’s historical films. Although the film is set in the wilderness, there is little sense of danger, except during the milk sickness epidemic. The frontier doesn’t even seem that foreboding when Thomas leaves the children alone to care for the homestead–the house gets messy, the kids wander around, and Lincoln cries, but nobody appears to suffer anything beyond emotional trauma. Like the landscape, the characters are often so idealized that they don’t seem like real people. This is especially true of Nancy, as she appears outright angelic in every scene. The film’s narrator, Dennis Hanks (Cameron Williams), tells us Nancy worked constantly, but we never see her do so. She just blissfully strolls through the weeds, taking in nature and playing with her precocious child. Indeed, the film begins with Lincoln’s ubiquitous, possibly apocryphal, and probably misinterpreted quote, “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother,” making her something ethereal right from the start.
Nancy also demonstrates the film’s tendency to be a little too on-the-nose when foreshadowing Lincoln’s future. His presidency bookends the film (with the Memorial in the opening and a flash-forward to the assassination at the end), but both references could have been cut. They only remind us of what we already know: Lincoln’s a big deal. Speeches by Bentley’s schoolteacher and Thomas near the end of the film also strain credulity, as the script stretches to have them predict Lincoln’s eventual success. Soon after Lincoln starts school, his teacher tells Sarah her son “will make his mark” and won’t stay in the woods for long, and Thomas later tells Lincoln, “You’re gonna be twice the man I am.” When the film has so little dialogue, these statements come across as overkill. The worst of these “seeds of greatness” offenses is a very brief scene in which Lincoln witnesses a slave caravan passing through the woods a few miles away from his home. Lincoln’s anti-slavery stance is obviously a significant part of his historical legacy, but Edwards should have accepted there really isn’t any room for it in a story about Lincoln’s early life. The improbable slave caravan only serves to further tarnish the film’s attempts at realism.
Indeed, the film is always at its best when it sticks to the actual details of Lincoln’s early life, which it does effectively and beautifully. Edwards clearly wants us to understand that Lincoln’s rise to greatness was incredibly improbable, but the frontier story effectively does that by its very existence. We don’t need to be shown Pigeon Creek is not Pennsylvania Avenue. I recently toured the Lincoln Home here in Springfield with a friend who afterward remarked, “when it comes to the self-made man ideal, they really don’t have a better example than Lincoln.” There’s a tension in that statement–it reduces Lincoln to a mythical symbol but also happens to be true. The Better Angels tries to resolve this tension by presenting Lincoln as he “really was” (in Hanks’s words), but still relies on too much of the myth. Maybe that’s unavoidable in a film set during a phase of Lincoln’s life we know little about. Nevertheless, The Better Angels is a strong enough film that I think it makes a strong contribution to the broader Lincoln filmography, even if it doesn’t quite measure up to some of its brilliant peers.
- I would have written about this film earlier in the year, but I organized a roundtable on it for the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association (which I edit) and I wanted to wait until that was published before I offered my own opinion. The roundtable is available in the latest issue and I highly recommend it to those who are interested in the film or Lincoln in pop culture. All four contributors–William Bartelt, Jackie Hogan, Megan Kate Nelson, and John Stauffer–did a great job and offer very different and thoughtful perspectives.
- Dennis Hanks plays a Jew’s harp in one scene. This is a nice touch because it was the only instrument Lincoln knew how to play.
- Does it mention slavery?: Only in the scene featuring the slave gang. It’s an effective scene with Edwards using the faces of the slaves to convey a lot about their condition but, as I said earlier, I’d rather it was cut. I guess that’s a strange thing to say, since I often use this space to complain that Civil War pop culture doesn’t pay enough attention to slavery.
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I am aware of the land title problem that drove Thomas to Indiana so that he could get a secure land title surveyed under the Northwest Ordinance. My point was that the interpretive sign at Hodgenville speculates that it was more than the title business that created his aversion to slavery, which is what my “I dunno” was about. But I am glad to hear that the film makers probably didn’t take their cues from speculative interpretive signs. As to his mom, I overlooked your point that the film is narrated by Hanks, so yeah, that makes the angelic mom stuff problematic. I need to see this soon.
Didn’t mean to imply you didn’t know about the the title claim. There are a lot of theories out there about why Lincoln became anti-slavery and I was just explaining which one I subscribe to. Hanks alludes to this a little in the film too, stating that Thomas moved because “Kentucky was gettin’ stuck up. No place for poor folk anymore.”
Looking forward to seeing this, although initially I wasn’t because of the Malick connection. About the slave caravan . . . I wonder if they took their cue on this from the “Boyhood Home” site in Hodgenville, Ky. There is an interpretive sign there that discusses the fact that slave caravans commonly came thru the area, and then speculates that perhaps Lincoln saw one as a child (maybe), or that his father did (more likely). This sets up their interpretive point that one reason Thomas may have left KY (besides the land title issue) was an aversion to slavery (I dunno). Of course this film is set at the Indiana site (which is a really nice NPS site, by the way), but I would almost be willing to bet that the makers of this film toured all the young Lincoln sites and felt that the caravan was an image they needed to put in the film despite the different location. Regardless, I can see why you feel it shouldn’t have been in there. As for his mother not being seen working and basically hovering around like an angel, perhaps this was done purposely to reflect Lincoln’s idealized and selective memories of a mother that he lost at too young an age, contrasting with his memories of an overbearing father. (Haven’t see it yet, so maybe I am way off track). I love hearing that the end has an homage to “Young Mr Lincoln.” As you know, I think Spielberg’s movie does too (and I wish the last shot had been that instead of the 2nd inaugural), so I think that it is kind of neat that all three films can now be connected in that way. Can’t wait to see it now.
William Bartlelt is one of the contributors to the JALA roundtable and he acted as an historical adviser for the film. His comments about the sort of information they wanted answers a lot of your questions. The slave caravan, however, was entirely their addition.
Regarding Thomas, his distaste for slavery may well have been from seeing it firsthand in Kentucky, but it was surely also because the slaveholding class got him evicted from much of his Kentucky property due to the state’s poor land records. He left for Indiana to make a new start where the power was more evenly distributed. Personally, I don’t think you have to take too far a leap to see this instilling a distaste for slavery and privilege in his son.
Finally, I considered the possibility that the film is trying to show you Nancy through Lincoln’s eyes but the problem is it never establishes Lincoln as the source of the script’s point of view or even as an audience surrogate. If the film is from anyone’s point of view, it’s Dennis Hanks’s since he’s the narrator. He certainly has nothing but praise for Nancy, but he’s also the one who tells us she worked all the time.
Curious to hear what you think about it once you see it.