Woodrow Wilson described D.W. Griffith’s notorious Civil War epic Birth of a Nation as "writing history with lightning." Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones, which covers roughly the same period as Griffith’s film, is more like writing history with index cards. Diligent and informative but also fragmented and inert, it plays like a series of scenes and notes for a longer, more fleshed-out movie.
In 1863, a poor Mississippi farmer named Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) led a rebellion of deserters and escaped slaves against the Confederacy, waging guerrilla warfare from the swamps and eventually declaring their county the "Free State of Jones." After the war, Knight moved away from white society with his new wife, a war ally and former slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Free State of Jones might seem like yet another story of a Great White Savior. It’s to the filmmakers' credit that they don’t falsely portray Newton Knight as a warrior for racial justice straight out of the gate -- we watch his consciousness develop.
Early on, as the story remains grounded in Newt’s experiences of combat and the urgency of his desertion and initial rebellion, we’re immersed in this world. McConaughey's wide eyes and tense gestures express a compelling mixture of bewilderment and fear. But as events accelerate -- as the Confederacy is defeated and Reconstruction begins -- Ross loses the thread. I applaud the director’s thoroughness -- he doesn’t want this to be another Hollywoodized bulldozing of complexity and veracity. But I would gladly give up all his onscreen facts for made-up scenes of Knight and his brethren interacting with one another, demonstrating what this rebellion and freedom meant for them.