It would have made for an awesome HBO miniseries, but as a movie, it’s still pretty darn good.
For the majority of Free State of Jones, I was riveted and pleased. All the work that director Gary Ross put into consulting professional historians was very apparent in big ways, and more interestingly, in small ones. For instance, we see an enslaved woman teaching herself to read by clandestinely watching the white children during their lessons. Or even better– the film depicts the same female playing an important role in keeping slaves that were “laying out” supplied and informed. That is some solid historical research on display and it had me almost giddy with delight. I was also pleased that some of the most perceptive dialogue is spoken by enslaved characters, and it is sometimes slyly comedic (perfect). The battle scenes are well crafted, the field hospital looks realistic (I was so glad to hear the line, “they have ether there.” Thank goodness, no infuriatingly inaccurate scenes of anesthesia-free amputations!), and the story is gripping. The whole cast is superb, especially (no surprise) lead actor Matthew McConaughey, the dialogue is well written (the conversations between Newt Knight and runaway slaves are particularly interesting), and the pacing is exactly what I like from my epic films (it takes its time to let the story unfold and is not afraid to hold a shot for more than a few seconds). I quickly got emotionally invested, and judging by the audible emotings from the audience I saw it with (sighs, shock, anger), so was everyone else.
Best of all, like Newt Knight frequently does during the over two hour running time, the film opens up with both barrels on the Lost Cause. The Confederacy is clearly the film’s evil entity, and it is refreshing to see Rebel soldiers doing bad things in a movie, instead of Union soldiers like we usually get (in fact, after the opening battle scenes, there aren’t any boys-in-blue anywhere to be found). There is no need for me to expound here on why it is so important that we finally get a pop cultural depiction of a divided South, because it is done so well here in this Slate article by Rebecca Onion. Now that I have seen the film, I think she and the historians she interviews are pretty much dead-on in this regard, especially in the contention that this “isn’t just another white savior movie.”
Still, what I appreciated most was the story arc that takes us from Newt and his band of men starting out with simply having anti-Confederate sympathies (rich man’s war, poor man’s fight! Damn the tax-in-kind! Damn conscription!), to later having more pro-Union sentiments (the enemy of my enemy), and ultimately deciding that the only cause worth fighting for was themselves. We simply do not know enough about Knight’s motives to know definitvely that this is an accurate depiction (he did later claim strong Unionist sympathies, but did so when he was petitioning the U.S. government for financial compensation), but this trajectory is definitely accurate for many southern Unionists, and thus the film depicts a larger truth. Further, Rebel atrocities were sometimes the catalyst that pushed southern whites with anti-Confederate sympathies into having pro-Union ones, and this is ably and compelling demonstrated in the movie.
Thus, for the bulk of the film, I was sitting there wondering why the heck reviewers were not shouting its praises. But then the war ended and Reconstruction started. I understand why director Ross felt it was important to not let the film end on a triumphant note, and I am VERY sympathetic to that. The film’s transition from Andrew Johnson’s presidential Reconstruction to military Reconstruction flows fairly well (despite the strange absence of Union troops). But then suddenly the film resorts to a quick fast forward through the transition from Congressional Reconstruction to Redemption. It tries to accomplish this task through the use of informational title captions and historic photographs, but in a movie that had thus far taken its time to deliver its story, the change is jarring and very ineffective. I imagine that less informed audience members will feel dazed and confused (sorry, I had to) by the quick and incomplete attempt at a history lesson. Whether or not a film sticks its landing largely determines how an audience feels about the movie when they walk out of the theater. I am convinced that this is the reason why so many reviewers are down on the film.
Still, I understand why Ross made the decision to include Reconstruction, and I agree with Christian McWhirter’s fine review when he argues that Ross should be praised for attempting an honest view of “ground-level Reconstruction.” Further, perhaps audiences SHOULD walk away from a Civil War movie with a dejected feeling of “was it all in vain?” as white supremacy is restored in the post-war South. I can’t help feeling that if Ross had had more time to work with, his exploration of Reconstruction could have been as riveting as most of the movie. Yet doing more with Reconstruction would have required a running time that would have exhausted audiences (let’s face it, as attention-holding as Gone With the Wind is, it also loses a lot once it transitions to Reconstruction. The topic isn’t easy to present in a riveting way, as most history educators will attest). Yet even in the hurried final scenes, there is some strong stuff, like visuals involving the site of the Klan on the ride at night, and ESPECIALLY an effective montage of one of the main characters working tirelessly to get African Americans registered to vote. Thus I can’t help but wonder how well Ross could have told his story in an miniseries for HBO. Sadly, we will never know.
In the end however, the film’s strengths (both in its historical accuracy and its narrative drive) far outweigh the limitations and failures of its last act. So don’t be deterred by the critics (and not all of them are negative, see A.O Scott’s review in the NY Times. I think he nails it. I’ve also noticed that the audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes is much higher than the critics’). Go see this film, it deserves a wide audience, and goodness knows we need the hard hit it gives the Lost Cause.