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The Better Angels

 Directed by A.J. Edwards available on DVD and OnDemand

Little is known about Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood. What he himself recalled of his early life comes primarily from two brief autobiographical sketches provided before he became president. He said he descended from “undistinguished families,” that what he had in terms of education was “picked up” and that his childhood was spent in a “wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods.”

The future president’s childhood, beginning at age 7, is the subject of The Better Angels, a poetic, impressionistic film that seeks to evoke Lincoln’s boyhood. The title refers not only to Lincoln’s first inaugural, where he invoked “the better angels of our nature” to try to prevent civil war, but more directly to a phrase he supposedly used in referring to his mother, who died when he was 9. He called her his “angel mother,” and the epigraph to the film is his reported comment, “all that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”

The film is narrated by Dennis Hanks (played by Cameron Mitchell Williams), his mother’s cousin, who also moved from Kentucky to Indiana and lived with the Lincolns before settling near them at Pigeon Creek. Written and directed by A.J. Edwards and produced by Terrence Malick, it is shot in lustrous black and white. It seeks not to tell but to evoke: Abe (Braydon Denney) works, reads and romps; his mother Nancy (Brit Marling) ambles in the woods; his father Thomas (Jason Clarke) tells stories but serves as disciplinarian; his stepmother Sarah (Diane Kruger) brings order to the chaos of a motherless home and showers her young stepson with affection.

Words do not matter much in this film. To remind us it is about Lincoln, Nancy says “he’s got a gift,” and a teacher offers “he’ll make his mark.” Nothing in the movie explains this, but that is the wonder of Lincoln’s life, how from such humble beginnings emerged such a man. His mother and stepmother had something to do with it, and the film captures those relationships.

The Better Angels misses when it comes to Abe’s relationship with his dad. Indeed Dennis Hanks tells us outright at one point that Thomas was a good man—yet Abe may not have felt so kindly toward his father. He pulled away from his dad and even, as biographer David Donald has pointed out, expressed scorn toward a man who, in Lincoln’s own words, did nothing to “excite ambition for education.” The film is not for those who prefer a dramatic plot and memorable dialogue. But for anyone willing to be transported to the past, it’s well worth watching.


Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.