Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughey and directed by Gary Ross, is a sort of Braveheart for this decade: the story of overwhelming odds and the will to be free from powerful forces who would steal and oppress. Based on actual events and covering the early years of the Civil War to the Reconstruction Era (and beyond, in a series of flash forwards to the mid-20th century), Free State of Jones is an ambitious film telling the story of southerner Newton Knight (McConaughey), who, as the film begins, is a Civil War medic on the side of the Confederacy. Becoming increasingly discouraged by what he experiences, and then in turn learning of the abuses committed by the Confederate government against white farmers, he leaves the army, and, because this is illegal, must flee to a remote swamp that eventually becomes the birthplace of the Free State of Jones.
As with most historical recreation in mainstream movies, all of the finer details here feel authentic (I’m not qualified to say if every one of them is perfectly so), though there were moments—handing runaway slaves guns to use for the first time, and they have deadly accurate aim—when this viewer became worried about efficiency of plot taking precedence over true authenticity. That said, there is great value here in McConaughey using his character (a real person, who died in 1922) as the focal point of the story and the unofficial head of the new “state," in which he draws together, in a brief, beautiful interlude, a ragtag group of poor white farmers and runaway slaves in his swamp state.
McConaughey’s acting—he was born in Texas, and has played many southerners—is a wonderful combination of toughness and tenderness without any overt sentimentality. As the story rambles on, we know the status quo cannot last, and the tide of history turns once again as the freedom and democracy of Reconstruction leads, grimly and violently, into the era of Jim Crow. Encompassing all this is a big task, and there’s little doubt the film -- at 2 hours and 20 minutes -- could have been cut off sooner for the sake of neatness and wrapped up with the close of the Civil War. A sequel, encompassing the post-war years, could be a perfect compliment but probably wasn’t possible with a film of this kind, so we take what we have, and it is, for the most part, a stirring display of a lost historical moment.