In his evocative biographical drama “The Better Angels,” director A.J. Edwards gives us a portrait of the boyhood years of the 16th U.S. president and his formative experiences growing up in the harsh wilderness of Indiana.
The Abraham Lincoln quote that gave A.J. Edwards’s the title for his movie The Better Angels is a well-known one, but that’s the only thing familiar about it. Edwards, who has worked for many years with the director Terrence Malick (The New World, The Thin Red Line) focuses on Lincoln’s Indiana boyhood, a little-known part of the 16th president’s life, and adopts an elliptical style — heavily reminiscent of Malick’s own — that relies on drifting camera, whispered dialogue and lyrical voiceover (not, in other words, the kind of thing a lazy student should pop in the night before a test). Even so, Edwards says, The Better Angels is scrupulously true to the records that exist, going so far as to film at the actual cabin once inhabited by Lincoln’s father Thomas and his second wife, Sarah. It’s not history as it’s usually told, but it’s instructive, and engrossing, all the same.
There have been many movies about Lincoln, including Steven Spielberg’s from only a couple of years ago. Why did you want to make another?
In a hundred years of film, there’s never been a picture made about his youth in Indiana. A lot of people know he was born in Kentucky, they know of his circuit-riding lawyer years in Springfield, him being a clerk in New Salem, obviously his D.C. years as President. A lot of people don’t know that he was ever in Indiana — and that drives Hoosiers nuts. This is a very mysterious chapter. He spoke of it very little, although he obviously had strong feelings about it. Whether it be his wife or his law partner, William Herndon, he kept it close to himself, and shared little. Luckily, certain men and women took up the task to document it, since Lincoln certainly did not serve it up for us to understand.
Why did you choose to shoot in black and white?
When you say black and white, it isn’t just one choice. You really do have to consider the spectrum of your monochromatic palate, and how stark you want it to be. Director of Photography Matthew Lloyd was really set on high-contrast, [Orson] Welles-ian black and white photography, not the kind of grey you have in most black and white films of the last 10 to 15 years. I always cited [cinematographer] Gregg Toland: I love The Grapes of Wrath and Citizen Kane. Matt would bring photographic references like Sally Mann or Marc Cohen; Sebastião Salgado is incredible. So it was nerve-racking at first how severe it was when he first showed it to me, but boy was he right.
Even though Lincoln is a boy in The Better Angels, we obviously know where his story is heading. How much did you want to prefigure what was coming later, or avoid obvious nods to it?
There are moments of foreshadowing, especially in the last third of the picture, but otherwise the film aimed to be very immediate and visceral, as if life was unfolding in front of the camera, and the crew was dropped into 1817 Indiana to document things as they were.
Because this is a lesser-known period of Lincoln’s life, viewers aren’t likely to know if you make alterations for dramatic purposes. How important was it for you to stick to the historical record?
Definitely incredibly important. To scholars of this epoch in his life, the film is very faithful to the sources that exist: Benjamin Thomas’s Abraham Lincoln: A Biography, Paul Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, Ida Tarbell’s The Early Life of Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Atkinson’s interview with Dennis Hanks. Our historical consultant, William Bartelt, who is the greatest living scholar on Lincoln’s youth in Indiana wrote a book a few years ago called There I Grew Up, and that was incredible in his collection of actual documents. You can see the land title of Thomas Lincoln’s purchase of the property, the ledger where you can see the members of the Pigeon Creek church community. The movie aimed to be incredibly authentic at its very core, and to represent the beats necessary to understand this time. You can look at Lincoln’s three campaign autobiographies, and it’s fascinating to see what he decides to cite from his years there, and also what he decides to omit. I would encourage anyone to look at what he wrote, and also his poems. Most people don’t know it, but in his 30s, he was a poet, and he writes about the Indiana years in a couple of poems, one called “The Hunt,” the other called “My Childhood Home I See Again,” which is very bittersweet.
What did Lincoln omit about his childhood from his own accounts? Is there a pattern to what he left out?
The pattern is one of great humility. He didn’t encourage people to investigate where he began. I’m sure he was a little ashamed of the poverty that he rose from, and the lack of education. He spent no more than a year of his life in school. He was an autodidact; he was inspired by Benjamin Franklin in that way. The one thing he was mysterious about was his relationship with his father, which was one filled with conflict and was never really resolved. Sarah Lincoln later in life would say, ‘Each man failed to understand the other’s world.’ It’s quite tragic. He failed to attend his father’s funeral. Correspondence between the two eventually fell off. His father started to have financial difficulties that Lincoln opted not to assist with. It wasn’t out of retribution, or anything ugly, I think the rift between them grew so vast that it couldn’t be crossed. It’s quite haunting.