“All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother”
It only takes one look at a tree canopy from below in gorgeous black and white photography to know writer/director A.J. Edwards is a student of Terrence Malick. He’s actually been the auteur’s editor since To the Wonder after holding positions as editorial intern and key artistic consultant on The New World and The Tree of Life respectively. It’s hardly surprising Edwards’ own style would therefore mimic Malick’s poetic visuals and penchant for voiceover subtly inferring upon the imagery without overpowering it with plot. In a nutshell The Better Angels is the Brad Pitt portion of Tree of Life with a young Abraham Lincoln as the focus. It’s another rural existence beneath a blue collar, taskmaster father despite dreams much bigger than his small world could ever provide.
The narration isn’t courtesy of Tom Lincoln (Jason Clarke) or Abraham (Braydon Denney), though. Instead it’s cousin Dennis Hanks (Cameron Williams) whose fateful trajectory landed him in the care of the Lincoln clan. The words are real too—taken from an interview with Eleanor Atkinson in the late 1800s—describing the humble life of an Indiana farmer between 1817 and 1820 and the ambitions of a young boy who would become an American legend. Pay attention and you’ll receive all the information you need concerning Dennis’ journey from Kentucky to Abe’s side thanks to the efforts of the Sparrow family. And from there listen as he sets the stage to introduce all major players before settling upon those select few indelible moments propelling Abraham’s evolution beyond the fields.
On a macro scale the film boils down to the angelic maternal figures in Abe’s life pushing for an education they knew was necessary for him to escape his father’s world. Whereas Tom could deflect Nancy’s (Brit Marling) desire to send the boy away by telling her to teach him herself, the unpredictability of God quickly makes such presumed certainties waver. Eventually the knowledge that Abe craves more than plowing fields and picking corn must be met with acceptance, especially after countless failures in doing the work asked of him. It’s his stepmother Sarah (Diane Kruger) who finally cajoles Tom into allowing Abe to attend Mr. Crawford’s (Wes Bentley) classes and voila: history was made. While this is Edwards’ backbone, however, there’s so much more onscreen.
And I don’t mean the beautiful frames of silent trees or playful children running and swimming within their natural habitat of log cabins in the woods. These interludes are merely serene scenes of place and time, enhancing the story with an authenticity that washes over the audience rather than being force-fed. I’m talking about the moments of character interactions: the unbridled love of Nancy and Sarah, the firm discipline of Tom never warped by the bottle or rage, and the actions of children learning how events that seem funny on the surface can inevitably end up cruel with unavoidable consequences. It’s the latter that truly shows us Abe’s potential, stories Dennis tells of boys being boys wherein the youngest of them found the strength to take blame.
There’s no scene with greater import to the man we remember today than when Tom asks Dennis and his stepson whether they did what he knew they all did together. The first says no and the second follows suit. Abe does the same too until the moment Tom’s ready to deliver equal punishment. The boy steps forward unprovoked, says it was his doing, and takes the beating meant for all three. You can’t help but feel the parallels to his presidency, his giving every man under his nation’s flag freedom through the Emancipation Proclamation only to suffer the consequences alone with a bullet to the brain. His leadership qualities manifested long before the Civil War. Edwards supplies the raw material and we interpret the meaning.
Many reject that type of storytelling—they want to watch cause and effect as check stops get met one after the other from birth to death. In that regard The Better Angels is definitely not for everyone much like the works of Malick aren’t. Viewers are required to do some heavy lifting with a film of this type. Some gravitate towards that challenge and others just see pretty images adding up to a whole lot of nothing. That’s the beauty of art and the potential of film as a medium to engage beyond narrative into the realm of emotion and spirituality. Edwards is creating snapshots of a bygone era in a way that makes them resonate universally. The details are different but the actions are the same.
So we project our own childhoods onto Abe and the others. We feel the love and the fear, death and rebirth, because we’ve experienced these same moments ourselves in our own way. Rather than start at a place of legend wherein this great man does the great things he’s been immortalized for, Edwards shows us the inauspicious beginnings so far removed from the history books that Denney could be portraying anyone. On one level he’s showing us the compassion Abe Lincoln received and ultimately returned to the masses, but on another we’re seeing how heroes always start off as common as you and me. We all have people in our lives that allow us to be better through empathy or responsibility. We all have the capacity for greatness.