When a film claims to be "Based on a True Story", I always approach with a heavy dose of skepticism, and while Free State of Jones may not have strictly stuck to the facts, the story was one that I'm glad I learned about through the film. Matthew McConaughey plays the main character Newton Knight, an actual Confederate deserter who history has told various tales about so the truth may never be known. Knight is the focus of the film, tight close-up focus at points, as he leaves the army after seeing his nephew die and return to find his farm plundered by the Confederate army and tax collector.
McConaughey has proven on numerous occasions that he can carry a film and that is no different here as he is a great actor to watch at his craft. However, the box office blunder of this film may take away from some of his star power as the pull of audiences was not high in a highly competitive summer. Still, he does a great job a grieving man caught up in a war that has nothing to do with him or his beliefs.
The film follows him as he falls on the wrong side of the Confederate law and hides out in the swamplands with a group of runaway slave including Moses (Mahershala Ali). I've found Moses's story one of the most moving of the film and a horrifying example of what happened to free men after the civil war when plantation owners returned to stake their claim on what they believed was their property utilizing corrupt laws to their bidding and suppress the votes of men.
The movie does a go a bit over long trying to both capture the uprising of Jones County, Mississippi and continue on into the Reconstruction Era. All parts of the story were important but I did think the flash forward to a different century to show the continuous fight against the awful laws of the Southern state to lack relevance to the story at hand and try to hard to convince viewers of the importance of this story in modern days when any educated audience member could easily see that without the help of the storytellers. Newton Knight had two wives, Rachel Knight (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Serena Knight (Keri Russell), but the controversy was a strange way to highlight this historical figure.
Free State of Jones tells a compelling story, one that might have been lost to history, but is a welcome refresher even if audience members didn't embrace it. There were some problems with pacing and from further reading, I think there could have been some even more interesting parts to add into the tale, but overall a solid historical fiction film with a tried and true movie star.