Free State of Jones online movie review - A war film about fighting for cotton, and honour, and the birth of a nation.
The film opens with marching men going into battle and the sense of the unknown is captured well here. Thereafter, a bloody battle ensues, with grim scenes of the charnel house of a hospital, that with later scenes, earn this film its UK rating of 15.
In the middle of these opening scenes is the star of the film Matthew McConaughey. He plays the real-life character of Newton Knight, a Confederate soldier from Jones County in Mississippi, at the time of the American Civil War. After good performances in 'Mud' (2012), and Interstellar (2014), here Mr McConaughey gives a convincing performance playing the real-life character who's life-story is laid out in this film.
A google search will show that writers Leonard Hartman and Gary Ross, have fictionalized real-life events to some extent, whilst also retaining their truthful core.
It is the fictionalized part of the first battle that seems badly done. The logic of the plan that was acted upon by the characters, seems too flawed to be believable. Perhaps the only flaw in this excellent film.
It was the military side of things that was most fascinating about this film, and indeed was the subject matter of much of this film. The carnage of the first battle was symptomatic of much of the American Civil War, where the northern Unionists used their greater resources to grind down the forces of the southern secessionists. This destructive and wasteful style of fighting has been seen since of course. Marshall Zhukov of the USSR used the Red Army in a similar way as he advanced on the Eastern front during WWII. More recently, the 1990 Gulf War was a similar example of the use of overwhelming force, as was the 2003 Iraq War an example of underwhelming power. The American Civil War foreshadowed that terrible carnage of the trench-warfare of WWI. Nowadays, unnecessary attrition has rightly been replaced, mostly, by selective precision. The Syrian Civil War, now in its 5th year, is however, a clear exception to this general rule.
Most of the fighting in this film though, is of a much lower level of intensity. We see fighting and guerrilla warfare, understandable to any student of Sun Tzu, Mao Tse-tung, or Che Guevara. Matthew McConaughey creates and leads his small band of irregulars against the regular army, led by Thomas Francis Murphy playing a man trying to do his duty, and Bill Tangradi playing a man revelling in his power. Both parts played well. Before all that though, is the spark that sets things off, in a tense and well-played scene with Kerry Cahill, Stella Allen, Camden Flowers and Carsen Flowers. Sun Tzu would have been proud of that scene, and Director Gary Ross should be proud of it too, as well as the rest of the film.
However, the film is not just about war. It is war that changes facts on the ground, but it is politics that try to make sense of what people are fighting for, and what they are trying to create. Earlier in the film, the side-kicks, played well by Christopher Berry and Sean Bridgers, have been in conversations about the moralities of war. Mr McConaughey's character also, as seen in the trailers, expounds on the reasons for war, and war aims, in a speech that covers philosophical ideas stretching from the communism of Karl Marx to that of the property rights of John Locke.
As a decent war film, this movie could have ended with the war and been fine for that, however, the real-life story continued, and so too, rightly, does this film.
Slavery, was at the very centre of the war-aims. 'Lincoln' (2012), showed the parliamentary struggle for abolition. Here, in 'Free State Of Jones' we see the actual reality of slavery, both before abolition, and after. The two other stars of the film both play slaves. Englishwoman Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives a convincing performance as does Mahersala Ali.
Within a couple of days of seeing this film, this reviewer also saw a BBC documentary called Scotland and the Klan. It told the story of the Scots hill-billies who settled across the USA, and how a minstrel group called the Ku Klux Klan quickly grew and morphed into a terrorist organization. Acting like a guerrilla army they used random and targeted acts to terrorize after the American Civil War.
'Free State Of Jones' shows well the post-war conflict with the KKK. Like 'Lincoln', this film shows a world of political parties very different to present day. Then, white supremacists were loyal to the Democrats, blacks to the abolitionist Republicans. 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance' (1962) was all about the law and democracy and voting. Similar themes are explored in strong scenes that are both well acted and well filmed. Mahershala Ali, so good from the start of the film, here is the central character. However, Matthew McConaughey also has a role to play, and Christopher Berry's and Sean Bridges's small side-kick characters, continue to authentically develop post-war as they did during the war.
Gary Ross, the director and writer, has previously penned 'Big' (1988) and 'Dave' (1993), both of which were comedies that also delivered serious thoughts too. In this serious work, with location-shooting that included Jones County, he has given us a very impressive piece of work. Two good touches, that demonstrated attention to detail were; the clearly different bits of wood authentically used for a funeral coffin to give an authentic realism, and the authentically-looking slight greying of Mr McConaughey's hair in later scenes.
Free State Of Jones is a fine piece of work, of which all involved should be proud. Essentially a war story, it will be of interest to those interested in war studies, but the inclusion of some politics and a spot of philosophy too, means that it will appeal to all interested in history wanting to see a serious film. 9/10.