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Review: The Better Angels

Review: The Better Angels

CREDITS: Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley, Braydon Denney. Produced by Terrence Malick. Directed by A.J. Edwards. 11/7/14

FILM SYNOPSIS: At an isolated log cabin in the harsh wilderness of Indiana circa 1817, the rhythms of love, tragedy, and the daily hardships of life on the developing frontier shaped one of our nation’s greatest heroes: Abraham Lincoln. Abe is a thoughtful and quiet boy who spends his days at the side of his beloved mother (Brit Marling) while learning to work the land from his stern father (Jason Clarke). When illness takes his mother, Abe’s new guardian angel comes in the form of his new stepmother (Diane Kruger), who sees the potential in the boy and pushes for his further education.

Produced by Terrence Malick and filmed in glorious black and white cinematography, The Better Angels sheds new light on the little-explored formative years of the legendary president as well as the women who shaped him into one of the revered men in US history. Based on interviews with Lincoln’s family members, The Better Angels is a beautiful, insightful, and brilliantly composed feature debut from Malick’s creative protégé, A.J. Edwards.

REVIEW: Director Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life) produces The Better Angels, with A.J. Edwards directing. But it’s definitely a Terrence Malick film. And we are the better for it.

Endure. That’s the word I’d use to describe the message of this film. Or, nurture. That’s also a significant element to this amazing look at the life of a young Abe Lincoln. And if you think you’ve had enough movies about Abe Lincoln, keep this in mind, it’s not really about him (well, it is and it isn’t). It’s about, well endurance and the importance of nurturing.

The exquisite imagery and the use of a penetrating camera add significance to the story and staid performances take us to an America that few can even imagine. It was a time when the existence of God was a normal part of family life and teachers used the Bible as a primer. Different world. (We’re so much better off now that school masters have no moral authority and the Bible’s insights are never mentioned during the matriculating of our youth. Yeah, right.)

This is a slow, deliberately paced production that takes its time in revealing the nature of its characters. For instance, just when you’ve assessed Abraham’s father as nothing more than an unfeeling, unaffectionate man, suddenly we are given two scenes that reveal his true nature. Though it’s difficult for him to express feeling, inside he’s reverent to God, an honest, hardworking man, and though stingy with a compliment, deep down there’s a true caring for his offspring.

Best scene: we see the father teaching his boys how to wrestle. He’s not trying to beat them down, but rather teach them how to defend themselves. You can see the look of admiration and appreciation on young Abe’s face when his old man gives him a compliment.

Next best scene: It’s between Abe and his father, who acknowledges his son to be a good boy. The look on the kid’s face say it all. For him, it was like finding gold.

But again, while Abe is the central character of the piece, he’s not really the focus of this film. While most of us cannot relate to the lifestyle of those who worked all day and if they could read at all, did so by candlelight. But The Better Angels reminds us that we all have frustrations and ordeals we must endure. And if there is just one someone who will say, “You are loved” and “You have worth,” it can be enough to get you through. And maybe someday that worth will be shared by the world. If not, it will be instilled in you and that’s what’s really important.

To say much more about this documentary-like exploration into the making of the man would not serve you. It is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen without interruption. It is a film that needs to be experienced. You’ll learn about 1800s American farm life. You’ll gain insight into the making of a man who would later save our Nation. And you’ll realize the importance of a good word or deed.

It’s a movie about something important. And it makes my list of best films of 2014.

PG (I found nothing offensive).

Distributor: Brothers K Productions

Running Time: 95 min.
 Intended Audience: Teens and up

By: Ken Raney and Phil Boatwright

Film and DVD Reviews by Phil Boatwright: Besides providing a monthly column for Baptist Press, Phil Boatwright reviews films for He also is a regular contributor to “The World and Everything In it,” a weekly radio program from WORLD News Group, which also publishes WORLD Magazine.

For more movie reviews, as well as news, reviews, and interviews on all forms of entertainment media from a Christian perspective, visit Ken Raney at

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