There’s just something about war movies that draw us in as audiences. Oh sure, there’s the history and the shaping of nations and all that, but there’s also much to be said for the stark realism of a well-done battle scene or the chance to get a view of the terrifying conditions therein. Just look at Saving Private Ryan or A Very Long Engagement, and you know what we mean. This is the premise that draws us into the new Civil War drama, Free State of Jones, but the war itself winds up playing more of a backdrop to the politically charged goings-on which, coupled with some degree of revisionist history, ultimately leaves the new film from director Gary Ross (he wrote Big with Tom Hanks and probably other movies) feeling far too drawn out.
Confederate soldier Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is sick and tired of fighting a losing battle for wealthy landowners, and when a young family member is conscripted and then killed right before his eyes, he just sort of leaves. Like, seriously—he just walks away and heads home to Jones County, Mississippi, and his wife Serena (The Americans’ Keri Russell). She’s pretty bummed out by his hero complex, though, and after watching him stand up to the Confederate envoy that comes to tax local farms (by taking all of their crops and livestock) for the bazillionth time, she leaves him. This somehow lands him in a nearby swamp with a small group of runaway slaves, and together they become a sort of safe haven for deserters and runaways.
Naturally, this doesn’t much impress the nearby general and his cronies, and so a sort of cat-and-mouse game plays out over the next five years. In this time, we see Knight’s Robin Hood-esque antics withstand everything from the KKK to the changing of Mississippi law to counteract emancipation and so on. Knight develops an even stronger sense of what’s right, becomes buddies with the slaves, fights for the poor and downtrodden and falls for a beautiful young slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw of Jupiter Ascending). The whole thing is reportedly based on actual events, but once Jones starts to toggle between the events of the 1860s and a descendent of Knight’s struggles with outdated and racist marriage laws 85 years in the future, it becomes hard to continue paying attention. If the goal here was to prove to us that Southern white people were just the worst in those days, we didn’t need a whole other subplot going down to prove it—everyone already knows! This adds painfully unnecessary length and overshadows more important story elements such as Knight’s buddy Moses (played excellently by Benjamin Button’s Mahershala Ali) working to provide black people and former slaves with the power to vote.
The whole thing smacks of the unfortunate white savior trope in film, and even if these were actual events, it diminishes the role that black people had in their own storyline during and after the Civil War. McConaughey continues his reign of being a super-intense dude, but if he’s not careful, he’ll have used up all of his True Detective/Dallas Buyer’s Club goodwill before he knows it.
It is conceivable that future high school history classes will be shown this film, but it’s just as possible it will be forgotten entirely due to its extra (read, boring) padding. It’s a damn shame they didn’t do better, too; Civil War films don’t exactly grow on trees, and we had high hopes.
Directed by Gary Ross
With McConnaughey, Mbatha-Raw, Ali and Russel
Violet Crown, DeVArgas, REgal 14
R, 139 min.