“You are the only man of all men that I would wish to surpass me in all things.”
Saint Augustine in a letter to his son Adeodatus who died at age 19.
The Better Angels (2014) is one of the most beautiful films I have even seen. My review is below the fold and the usual caveat as to spoilers is in full force.
A film about the boyhood of Abraham Lincoln, I had hoped to see The Better Angels in a theater when it came out, but other matters intervened, and I did not view it until last night on Amazon Prime. Filmed in glorious black and white, the cinematography is achingly beautiful, giving a feel for the physical beauty of the frontier on which Lincoln grew up. Although filmed in New York, the landscape does remind me of the part of Southern Indiana where Lincoln was raised. (Black and white filming of course also gives a sense today of a time in the past, now long gone.) The film is unconventional in that it consists of a series of vignettes rather than a straight forward story, almost as if we are viewing recollections of Lincoln the man, as he summons memories from his vanished childhood. The excellent musical score enhances an other worldly and elegiac feel to the film. Sparse narration is provided by Dennis Hanks, Lincoln’s cousin, who lived with the Lincolns from 1818-1821.
Dialogue in the movie is minimalistic, and throughout most of the film the boy Lincoln says nothing. However, the film powerfully conveys his spiritual and intellectual growth. His relationship with his father Thomas is well done, and I think that most put upon man finally receives his due for his central role in helping to produce the man Lincoln became. Tom and Abraham Lincoln were too different to ever have an easy relationship, but the film splendidly shows that in his gruff way Lincoln’s father was a good man. We see for example Abraham helping Thomas build a church where they and other local families can worship. A sequence in which he teaches Lincoln how to wrestle almost brought tears to my eyes as I was flooded with memories of similar scenes between me and my two sons. How precious each second of childhood is, and how little we realize it at the time, either for us or for our children. When Thomas hands Lincoln his axe and tells him that he will be twice the man his father is, we perhaps understand why, despite their later estrangement, Lincoln named his youngest son Thomas, two years after his father’s death.
Much of the focus of the film is on the relationship of Lincoln with his two mothers: Nancy Hanks Lincoln and Sarah Bush Lincoln. Dennis Hanks describes how Nancy Hanks was a believer whose hopes “were yonder, always yonder” and how her mind and her son’s often seemed to run on similar tracks. Although she is illiterate, she recognizes that God had given her a gifted son and is determined to see him have what little education the frontier can offer. When she dies of the milk sick and Abraham helps his father build her coffin, not a word is said, but we can see his anguish. His stepmother Sarah Bush Lincoln sets his feet on the path of knowledge and insists that his father do what he can to get some education for Lincoln. Her efforts are rewarded when Lincoln’s teacher tells Sarah that Lincoln has a good mind, eager for knowledge, and that he will make his mark in the world.
The film ends abruptly, Easter 1865, as Hanks describes going to the farm of Sarah Bush Lincoln, long a widow, to tell her that her stepson had been murdered. She was grief stricken but unsurprised: “I knowed they’d kill him. I ben awaiting fur it.”
A very moving meditation upon childhood and how the seemingly most insignificant events in this Vale of Tears, when we are young, stay in our memories and shape us, molding the men and women we become.