By Mark Saldana
Rating: 2.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
The true story of Southern revolutionary Newton Knight is a fascinating one. Knight’s life and work was definitely ahead of its time, as he did more for race relations during that era, than any politician could. His actions would have both positive and negative results for his descendants for a whole century. The Free State of Jones is a new film that ambitiously attempts to comprehensively tell Knight’s story and the impact of his actions on future generations. However, because it attempts to cover so much ground, the overall film gets so bogged down by historical details and the future implications, that the real heart of the story, Newton Knight, gets somewhat lost in the process.
During the United States Civil War, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) served the Confederacy as a military nurse, treating the wounded soldiers. After losing a soldier near and dear to him, and because he doesn’t truly believe in the Confederacy’s cause, Knight decides to desert his unit and return home to his family. He soon gets discovered when he chooses to defend a neighbor whose home gets raided by Southern soldiers for food and supplies. Forced to go on the run, Knight retreats into the Mississippi swamps where he is joined by other deserters, Southerners and escaped slaves willing to take up arms against a Confederate army they feel needs to be stopped.
Based on the story by Leonard Hartman, and written and directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, The Hunger Games), The Free State of Jones is a film that tries to accomplish too much in too little time, and gets a bit jumbled up in the process. Ross attempts to pull a Godfather: Part II with a past and future, dual plots detailing the implications of Knight’s battles on his descendants during segregation. At first, the jump into the more recent past is confusing and disorienting. I feel that the impact of Knight’s work is too important to be ignored, but also feel that the second plot involving a marital case by a descendant of Knight would have been best handled by an epilogue of text before the closing credits. Too much time gets wasted on this secondary story, whereas the focus of the film should have been Newton Knight alone.
As a director, Ross and his crew do excellent work in creating authentic-looking battle scenes with some genuinely moving and compelling moments. Knight’s story truly is a fascinating and poignant one, and Ross does a great job painting him as a revolutionary hero with whom most audiences can identify and for whose cause they can rally and applaud. Matthew McConaughey brings much heart and soul to the character and is certainly the highest point of the film. The movie also features stellar work by Gugu Mbatha Raw, Maherhsala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, and Thomas Francis Murphy. Despite the flaws and limitations of the film the actors absolutely shine and deliver performances worthy of a better film.
And Newton Knight, the person and revolutionary, also deserves a better film that focuses mainly on his strength and convictions, and one that doesn’t get too muddled up in including as many historical facts and details it can possibly cram into its run time. Granted, the Civil War, the rather messy reconstruction that followed, and the long period of racial tensions that existed afterward in the South are important in the history of the United States, but these are facts and information are better handled in other films, mini-series and documentaries. As low as my rating is for this movie, I will reluctantly recommend The Free State of Jones as a matinee film for the exceptional acting of McConaughey and cast, and also because it does make for a decent educational movie for teens studying American History in school.