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Impressive in many ways.
jdesando19 November 2014
"The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." Abe Lincoln

If writer-director A. J. Edwards wanted to show in his biopic, The Better Angels, the influence of angelic women on young Abe Lincoln, he succeeded. This minimalist, dialogue-spare depiction of Lincoln's early life in the woods of Indiana is rife with beautiful shots of trees and sunlight, not to mention a pristine cabin, but mostly it is filled with the love and direction given by Nancy (Brit Marling) and Sarah Lincoln (Diane Kruger).

Not much to do out there in the frontier but cut wood and think about ways to be a better human being. While the women chat with Abe about life, Tom Lincoln (Jason Clarke), his dad, contributes a considerable amount to Abe's tough mindedness, largely by testing Abe's patience with dad's harsh discipline.

While this less-than-epic activity occurs, it is encased in gorgeous photography, black and white crisp, with light streaming through tall trees, frequently at low angle to emphasize the child's point of view. You could almost say it's a copy of Terrence Malick's work, and you'd be right because the ethereal cinematography of that master (Tree of Life, Badlands, for example) no doubt influenced Edwards, whose film is produced by Malick and with whom he has worked.

On the other hand, the poetic images could be off putting for those who accuse Malick of being pretentious or just interested in painting rather than telling a story. I go where a director wants to take me—in this case, to a lyrical feeling about the early life of an immortalized leader.

Although The Better Angels is mostly impressionism, symbolic shots couched in terse language, be it by actors or voice-over, the picture of young Abe up to his rural schooling seems spot on for the intense, brilliant, iconic president we have come to know. I'm impressed.

"All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother" Abe Lincoln
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4/10
The Better Angels Review
tainadurden11 March 2016
The Better Angels, a 2014 Lincoln drama directed by AJ Edwards followed Abraham Lincoln as a boy (played by Brayden Denney) and his experiences living from the land. We see Lincoln going through the trials of his youth alongside his dad, Tom Lincoln (played by Jason Clarke) and siblings. Considering how tragic Lincoln's youth was, the film did not make me feel much for any of the characters.

By the end of the movie I felt as if I could have been watching any boy from that time period. But speaking of time period, it is one thing I loved about the film. The time and place (Indiana, 1817) felt authentic and I liked that I was able to observe what life was like back then. The crude and realistic production design and the plain costume design were both fitting to the time. The black and white color palette also helped to convey the simplicity of the period.

To characterize the boy as Lincoln, there were lines about him reading books, and scenes of him wrestling, but the core of his childhood was his relationship with his mother and step-mother which I felt were underdeveloped in the film or did not feel as essential as they were in real life. I did enjoy watching the father-son relationship in the film. There was tension between the two in real life, as Tom Lincoln seemed more fond of his step son than his real son. But, as the movie went forward, there was a warm side of Tom Lincoln on display which I enjoyed. Specifically, when he tells Abraham that he'll be twice the man he was, it was heartwarming and revealed a less one sided approach to their relationship.

The cinematography was not bad by any means but I do wish that the cinematographer would have calmed down a bit. Almost every scene had continuous camera movement that didn't always seem motivated by anything and it drew attention to itself. This over complication of movement seemed to be an overcompensation for the slow pace and lack of substance throughout the film.

Overall, The Better Angels had some beautiful shots and started to peel away at Lincoln's childhood. However, it was overly pretentious and unfocused, which led to it feeling more like a seedling of a movie than the fully developed, blossomed film it could have been.
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10/10
I sank deep into this film and stepped back in time.
captaincastile14 March 2015
This is one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen. I've been pondering the experience for a couple of days. I really don't know how to express what I thought and felt while watching it. I fear that whatever I say will sound plastic, and it was not plastic at all. It was real. It fell just short of being living flesh.

To start, I felt like I was really there with young Lincoln and his family. It was like visiting with them. The feeling became deeper as the film progressed.

Black and white was the perfect choice for this film. The cinematography was in a class by itself. Orson Wells did not do any better when he filmed Citizen Kane.

Many of the camera angles were new to me; and yet they were as comfortable as old shoes. The sound was just as extraordinary. The wind in the trees, the birds chirping in the fields all combined with the skilled use of the camera and drew me in.

I've seen, as far as I know, every film ever made about Lincoln. He has been one of my heroes since I was a child. But, I've never seen one that covered his early childhood in such depth. Not necessarily depth of historical detail, but depth of experience; what he lived, thought and felt as a boy.

I was surprised and pleased to see something of his early school years. And yes, they prayed in school and the teacher taught from the Bible. The one room schoolhouse was, to the best of my knowledge, accurately portrayed.

If you question the reality of Christian teaching in early American schools, I suggest you Google up a copy of the first editions of McGuffey's Readers. You'll find them to be full of Christianity. That's the first editions; 1836 - 37. Not the later editions when the "gutting" of Christian teaching and principals was already having it's effect. More's the pity.

The two women in young Lincoln's life were of course his two mothers.

To watch Lincoln's mother touch and stroke his face and tousled hair was perhaps the most heart touching portrayal of a mother's love I have ever seen in film. Words were not needed; the love in her eyes and the touch of her hand said it all. No wonder Lincoln gave her so much praise.

Following his mother's death, his step-mother eventually became just as close to him. She too, was an extraordinary woman.

I disagree with the short shrift many film critics have given to Lincoln's father. He played as large a part in shaping Lincoln's character as did his two mothers. Lincoln Sr. is well represented here; and deservedly so.

When I was a boy there was a time I would have given anything to hear my father say to me what Abe's father says to him toward the end of the film. Of course I won't give it away, but I'll tell you it's worth waiting for.

I don't know if anyone connected with the film will ever read this, but if they do, I want to express my thanks and let you know I'm grateful for for work and care you put into "The Better Angels." I can honestly say that I think I'm a bit better for having seen it.

If you have not yet see this work of love, please do. I think you'll consider it to be time very well spent.
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4/10
Slow, So Slooowwww
paulwaidelich11 September 2017
In thoughtful movies that rely on dialog and story rather than CGI, sex and violence, there's an opportunity to craft meaningful character studies. The Better Angels forgoes the flash, even filming in black and white. The problem is, they didn't develop any characters. Particularly young Lincoln. Nothing happens. No one changes, except maybe Lincoln's father a little. The viewer slogs through the boredom of frontier life without any insight into young Lincoln. I don't need to see people shot, stabbed and punched. I don't need to see gratuitous sex or colorful explosions, flashy costumes or lively music. But if you're going to make a movie about an historical character, there has to be a story told that shapes the boy into a man. This movie is little more than a black and white home movie where NOTHING happens. Four stars is probably generous.
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7/10
History in the making?
kosmasp2 August 2014
Not really, especially if you watched this without having a clue who the young boy is supposed to be. It could be just any story about any young boy growing up. But it's not. It's young Abe Lincoln, something you could completely miss, like I did. Which happens because I do watch movies without reading up on them. So while it was obvious this was going to be a black and white film, I didn't know what it was about. It played at the Festival in Berlin, which does not always says a lot about the quality of the movie itself, but I tried.

And I wasn't disappointed by the story of this boy. A story that is interesting in itself, but would not allow any conclusions about where this boy would go. Something people obviously did ask the director too, who was present at the screening. A very interesting stylised form, of a story of a man/boy you might not have heard/read yet ...
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10/10
Simultaneously Ahistorical and American, Universal and Particular.
danielmizzlemoss25 July 2015
What is so immediately intoxicating about this film is the cinematography. From the first frame you are pulled into the experience as viscerally as moving image can manage. Albeit this is not, per se, immediate. The film actually begins with an extended introduction to the score or, more specifically, the leitmotif that will accompany you throughout much of the trajectory. This brings me to the main idea: this piece is ahistorical in many ways. Rather than a score befitting the time period, you make your acquaintance with a modern sounding slightly more minimal arc of sounds which speak more to the mood of the film than to anything aimed at a period drama. A fortiori, the decision to begin the film with this extended immersion into music—a medium beautifully unconstrained by the more limited potential of physical form is a titillating foreshadowing of what the director is after here. This movie intends to touch only on themes that span the course of human history (and perhaps transcend it entirely given the religious connotations often present (similar to The Tree of Life in that regard)) through the presentation of mood, love, loss, family, discipline, isolation, friendship, freedom etc. What makes this so successful is not the scope alone. Any film can be ambitious and fall flat but this endeavor found it's successful portrayal of the universal through specific attention to the particular (much as poetry does (and much as The Tree of Life did)). There is great attention to detail in this film and all of the powerful themes conveyed here are tightly woven into the fabric of a very historically particular life and time. This is what is so magical about The Better Angels. It is ambitiously universal in everything it intends to convey and it does so through a radical focus on the absolutely particular. This is a film about Abraham Lincoln's childhood and that is what you see... But!– You never even hear his name. To an outsider, uninitiated into American Culture and History, it would be the same experience. The detail is so zoomed in that only the most fundamental elements of the life and character portrayed here can be seen. The details that one speaks of in a history class are nowhere to be found. This film pulls you to two opposite ends of an essential spectrum of human knowledge. On one end: abstraction to the universal and on the other: absolute particularity. It is the way that the former permeates the latter that makes this film an exceptional work of cinema. Roger Ebert correctly daubed it: "a genuine American art film", and it is indeed that and yet more. This more, on it's own, however is insufficient. Being a genuine American film alone is insufficient. Combining the two such that the universal emerges from the details and routines of an American woodland childhood is what strikes gold. The message and medium chosen were paired together exquisitely and make for an immersive experience of cinematic poetry and thematic meditation. The Better Angels is indeed utterly American, and yet wholly universal all at once. I hope this enhances your experiences of it.

Thanks. -DM

p.s. I wrote this in an inspired frenzy so please excuse any potential iPhone typos and read my roving ramblings charitably. Cheers!

p.p.s. It's quite beautiful that this is a film which defies typical cinematic structure so thoroughly that I am at a loss for how one could even potentially construct a description capable of containing spoilers. I don't think it can be done.
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10/10
Impressionist Film about Young Abe Lincoln
shaquedamour6 April 2015
This beautiful film really took me to that time and place. I enjoyed this movie more than any other I have seen lately. This thought provoking portrayal of Lincoln's boyhood is fresh. I have already read so much about Lincoln and seen films about him and thought this might be tired ground to cover. But, I was completely drawn in by the experience of this film. The subtlety of the piece is much appreciated. I work with children and I would like to show this film to elementary - high school students and get their impressions of the film. The way that childhood is captured here is lovely and meaningful. This story within a story is a gentle and welcome addition to films about a great American President.
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5/10
Uncomfortable to Watch
hanaholman-0033410 March 2018
I was excited to see this movie after watching the mysterious-looking trailer, but I must say I wasn't very impressed and have a lot of mixed emotions in regard to it. The first 20-30 minutes of the film reminded me somewhat of a horror movie. The style of the production was super dark-toned and the music sounded like what you hear before something super terrible is about to happen. To make the vibe so creepy made it very uncomfortable and difficult to watch. On top of that, there isn't much dialogue. So, if you aren't familiar with Lincoln's life, you'd be lost throughout the entire film considering there are no explanations whatsoever. Abraham barely spoke, nor did he even seem to have much of a personality through the whole film, which was disappointing to watch. One thing I did enjoy and believe to be very clever was the scene of the field of cows, where one is lying dead. I thought it was a very good foreshadow for what was to come a few scenes afterwards. Also, regardless of the lack of dialogue, it is easy to tell that Abraham loved both his mothers and step-mother. That was a beautiful thing to watch unfold. The first couple of scenes feature a narrative voice which I assumed to be Abraham's. I'm still not clear on if it was his voice or his cousin's voice who we meet later on, but regardless, the voice was very inaccurate to me. It was very southern, and Abraham Lincoln's voice has never been described as southern. It is more high-pitched and Midwestern, like Daniel Day-Lewis's voice for him in Spielberg's Lincoln (2012). The word "pappy" was used to describe Thomas Lincoln a few times, and I really can't imagine Abraham calling his father that. Pappy is too endearing, and it is far too southern sounding. They did a somewhat decent job on historical accuracy. Lincoln's relationship with his dad is accurate seeing as they were never close, but it seems unhealthier than what's been depicted in other Lincoln films, like John Cromwell's Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), where there's one scene of his father making a comment about Abraham reading. In this one, there's a scene where Thomas grabs Abraham by the collar and sort of drags him. I've also never heard anything about the Lincoln family taking in a boy to live with them, so that was odd as well. I had hopes for it seeing this considering there aren't any other films depicting Abraham Lincoln as a child the whole way through. But overall, I would not recommend someone to watch this. There are plenty of other movies on Lincoln that are much more enjoyable to watch, and a lot more can be learned from them.
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5/10
Meditative, but not a lot to say.
lukekpat11 March 2016
The Better Angels begins with a quote from Abraham Lincoln: "All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my Angel mother." Terrance Malick film veteran (editor), A.J. Edwards, directs a film that is not as much about the aforementioned historical figure as much as it is about childhood. Though the film follows the well-known biographical beats of Lincoln's youth—his father's adherence to labor over studies, his mother's death by milk sick, his experience with wrestling, his close relationship to his stepmother—the film never takes on an aggressively Lincolnesque aura. Except for when it does. There are some points when Miller's film seems as if it aims to be subtle, focusing more on small details of rural American life and only hinting at a connection to Lincoln. The film begins with glimpses into the Lincoln Memorial, but never shows the president's statue. Scenes of Lincoln reading with his birth-mother, Nancy (played by Brit Marling) show early hints of a gentle nature in the boy; she places a mantis on his hand and he lets it crawl along him. The effect that Tom Lincoln (played by Wes Bentley) has on his son's life is more of an imposing authority than a father; his head is often cut out of frame as he looms over Lincoln, who is played by Jason Clarke. It is also shown that Tom regularly whips his son (like a slave), a situation that Abe has come accustomed to. This is done to the horror of Abe's stepmother, Sarah (played by Diane Kruger). This is a quality that could be applied to many children of the time, and does not need to be exclusive to Lincoln. The film is extremely meditative, filled with lengthy sequences of atmospheric shots of the woods with little to no dialogue. So, the lack of tie-in to Lincoln's biography may seem appropriate. However, the film seems to get caught in a twilight zone. Some scenes are far from subtle, most notably a scene when the young Abe witnesses a group of slaves being lead in chains. In addition to the fact that it is recorded that Lincoln did not come to witness the horrors of slavery until later in his life, the scene shifts the tone of the film from hinting at Abraham Lincoln's relationships with others to flat out spelling out to the audience: 'this is why Abraham Lincoln did not like slavery.' What also sticks out in this film is its lack of substance. Though it focuses on the relationships that shaped Lincoln from a youth, there is not much emphasis on the impact that these events have on Lincoln. The beautiful black-and-white visuals lose their merit for the most part since little is shown to have much of an impression (save for a scene in which milk sick is given a palpable, albeit strobe-light filled effect). Another odd choice is the aggressively choppy editing. That being said, the cinematography and framing work is enticing; the camera moves almost like a ghost through these childhood memories. That is what this film is: a series of memories. However, without enough substance to bring the characters to life or tell a historical story about Lincoln, and with too much history to be a meditative look at childhood, the film, in my opinion, falls apart. There is a lot of promise in Edwards' directing to be seen here, but a later film may use these tactics more effectively.
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10/10
Sublime Visual Poetry
othiker3 June 2015
The beauty of the film The Better Angels is in its innate sense of humility. Limited in scope with very minimal dialog delivered through understated performances, watching this film is a surprisingly moving experience that will resonate with the viewer long after the closing credits roll. I watched this film last evening and have not been able to get it out of my mind all day! Beautifully photographed in black and white that is at times stark and crisp and at other times dreamily soft, the actors are portrayed as both stoic and tenderly loving. Quite simply, this film is a masterpiece that understands the wisdom of less being much, much more! I believe The Better Angels belongs to the same rank as Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire and Ben Wheatley's A Field in England for its profound beauty. A must see!
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10/10
Poignant
Ikepickerel5 May 2015
.....is the word that came to mind numerous times throughout the film, and captain Castile reviewed it best. I would add that although I thought I had a grasp of pioneer living, I now know I didn't have a clue! I kept relating all the hardships shown in that era juxtaposed to how pampered we live today, and yet have the gall to complain about someone taking our parking spot! We owe it to ourselves to watch this wonderful snapshot, if not for the Lincoln history, then for the lesson learned/relearned of how wonderfully blessed we are to live in this time of aplenty, and maybe stand up for right and wrong, and try to maintain a grip on the America we grew up with!
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6/10
My new opinion on black and white films.
loveydoveyy19 March 2018
My first opinion for this movie is that it has beautiful cinematography by having the screen move in different directions and having a variety of shots. Even though it is in black and white, I find that the movie captures the lighting and darkness really well. The sounds effects for the movie is really amplified for example the crunching of the leaves or birds chirping, likewise for the soundtrack it made the movie more calming and beautiful with the violin or piano playing. The movie didn't have a lot of dialogue beside the narrator's voice of Abraham. It didn't sound like him either since it was more southern and not as high pitched. A better representation of Abraham's voice could be Daniel Day-Lewis's in Spielberg's Lincoln (2012) which is more high-pitched. I also find that the movie also explains Abraham Lincoln's life and his relationships with his family and friends very accurately, which the movie centers more on the interactions with his mother, step mother, and father. The actor that played Abraham didn't seem to show much emotions or show any personality traits throughout the movie for example, there was a lot of scenes that just focuses on his face with no emotions. Overall, I don't usually watch a black and white movie however, I enjoyed watching this since it was entertaining and wasn't dull or tedious to watch.
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7/10
Malick Homage
davidmvining3 February 2021
A.J. Edwards is an acolyte of Terrence Malick, and I ended up getting my hands on this movie because of the Malick connection since he acts as producer on the film. I really didn't expect that I'd be getting what is essentially another Malick film from it. The voiceover, the captured moments, repeated motifs, and the wide-angle lenses all feel like Malick made the film himself. The little that's written about the film, since it was barely released and mostly forgotten, tends to call the movie a copy of Malick. Well, it kind of is, but that doesn't mean that it's not a worthwhile film on its own. Like many first time filmmakers before him, A.J. Edwards made a film in the style of the filmmaker that meant most to him, and having worked on all of Malick's films from The New World to Song to Song in some capacity, most notably as a "key artistic consultant" on The Tree of Life, Edwards was well placed to receive guidance from the man who seems to have given him his start in the industry.

The Better Angels is the story of Abraham Lincoln's youth in Indiana, mostly from the death of his mother Nancy through his father's marriage of Sarah Bush. It's in the relationships between Abraham and his father and step-mother that the movie is primarily focused on, and it ends up repeating the nature and grace motif most prominent in The Tree of Life. Tom Lincoln is a hard man, building up a living from the earth with his bare hands. Sarah, played by the blonde Diane Kruger, is uncomfortable with Tom's use of corporal punishment and encourages Abraham's education.

Up until Sarah's introduction, the movie does end up feeling like a stylistic imitation rather than a work of art on its own, but it's with the appearance of Abraham's step-mother that the film gains something special. The movie has several wonderful episodes, but the first, at about the halfway mark, is when Abraham takes a trinket of Sarah's, "meaning nothing by it" as the voiceover from Abraham's cousin explains. Abraham admits the petty theft to his father in Sarah's presence, and Tom immediately takes his switch and starts to punish Abraham, an act that Sarah can't bear to witness. She ends it and even hands the trinket back to Abraham. Diane Kruger feels right at home as Sarah, offering the sort of unconditional love that one might expect from a manifestation of grace.

The movie ends up trying to strike a balance between explaining Lincoln as a man through his childhood and saying something a bit more universal. I think both end up a bit muted in impact with Abraham's emphasis on his honesty shown but never really given any depth, and in terms of the universal aspects it feels equally thin. We have the same basic dichotomy between mother and father as in The Tree of Life, but we're given far less time with both, especially Sarah as the mother/grace figure, so they don't create the same kind of lasting impression. I'm also unclear about how these different aspects are supposed to really tie together, touching on an irritation I have about explaining complex historical figures through easy answers. However, this doesn't try to provide an easy answer (a mark in its favor), but Abraham ends up feeling less like a character than an idol, even in child form. The emphasis largely seems to be on Sarah and for all the joy Diane Kruger brings to the screen, she does only appear in the second half of the film, limiting her impact.

The film's about mood, tone, and emotion, much like Malick's work which makes sense. I just feel like there's a bit less behind it here. Edwards has the aesthetic down pat, but not the meaning. As an art film package, it's a good watch that holds together well but ends up feeling a bit thin in the end. For fans of Malick's work, this is a nice homage to the master's films. I want to see Edwards make more films, though I also hope that he can either make the style his own or move beyond homage completely to find his own distinctive voice. As a first film, though, there have been far worse from great directors.
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8/10
A Legends Childhood and Average Life
jennifervazquezvz14 March 2019
The Better Angels, directed and scripted by A.J Edwards was produced in 2014. The film captures the young life of historical figure Abraham Lincoln. And though the film follows Lincoln specifically, A.J Edwards directs the film in a way that doesn't directly correspond to Lincoln automatically, rather the film is directed to illustrate childhood in its entirely based on the time period. Director A.J Edwards does although follow the basic life story of Abraham Lincoln fairly accurate; his father's imposed importance of labor over studies, his mother's tragic death, his close relationship he forms with his stepmother and his personal interests with wrestling and reading. All in all the film never once take on a defiant position to illustrate Lincoln's life, in which is demonstrated through the films subtly. The film focuses more on the defining details of rural America and only hitts to the connection and correlation they have towards Lincoln's life. The film although about Lincoln's young childhood, could also be about the influence women figures had on Lincoln's upbringing. In which I would argue this film captures perfectly, through the lack of dialogue and through the love and guidance his mother and step mother give him. Adding to this, the films black and white appears as well as the films selective sporadic editing choice highlight that this film is a series of memories that form all of Lincoln's childhood. Edwards did a wonderful job illustrating the life of a legend who was also just another average boy from Indiana, I would definitely recommend the film.
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1/10
Apparently someone got a camera for Christmas.
madwand67 February 2018
This was brutal to watch. Seems like they had to say it was about Abe as a kid so you'd think there was a reason to watch it, but it was more like random "artsy" shots of some people living in the woods, but not actually doing anything the entire length of the movie. Something happened to a dog too, but I couldn't figure out what it was. Total waste of time.
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Artistic, But Without Substance
zinkmariarose11 March 2016
The love Abraham Lincoln has for his mother and his step mother is ever-present throughout this film and stands at the forefront of his struggle in childhood. The opening quote of the movie is "All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother." This is very apparent for the rest of the film; his struggle living in Indiana and dealing with the death of his mother whom he very much loved. This movie is extremely dreamlike and poetic, however, its effectiveness as a full length film seems unnecessary. This film is a unique artistic look at Abraham's childhood and his relationships with important women in his life, but its obvious low-budget nature and minimalistic dialogue calls for a disappointment to all Lincoln fans. The film is set over a three-year period starting from when his family moves from Kentucky to Indiana. There is a philosophical nature to the movie that seems more relevant to the artistic audience than to the historical accuracy of the time. The movie is a visual work of art and for fans of Lincoln's biography and life, it is merely that. It is not to say that The Better Angels is not a beautifully clever visual to an artistic crowd wanting a glimpse into Lincoln's life, it just does not have the substance most Lincoln fans look for. The black and white film does a lot to give the feeling of the time of Abraham Lincoln's childhood and misfortunes, but does not provide complete accuracy and overview on Lincoln. Even though it wonderfully shows his father's hatred of his scholarly endeavors and his mother's influence, the minimalism of its dialogue prevents a full understanding of the historical context surrounding the time. His childhood is what drove his entire career and the inspiring political changes he enacted and these inspirations stemmed from his definite sense of education and his relationships with women.
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