Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Free State of Jones: Monday, June 27 2016

The Free State of Jones is written and directed by Gary Ross, an experienced, award-winning director. An American Civil War film, it opens on a scene I found moving. Having been to Gettysburg, I was reminded of Pickett's Charge, and the inevitable loss of so many Confederate soldiers. They were marching heroically into the superior firepower of the Union Army. Over 7000 men died at Gettysburg. Absolutely tragic from any point of view!

But then the tone switched to one of objectivity. It seemed to me I was watching a documentary of the war from an unusual viewpoint. No longer mythical, we were faced with reality. We see the war through the viewpoint of Newton Knight and the supporters of his armed rebellion against the Confederacy. Living in Jones County, Mississippi, Knight views the war as that of rich people. Anyone who owned 20 slaves was excused from fighting. Knight was not thinking that the plantations still had to be managed, even during the war, nor was he seeing any larger issues. All he saw was that he didn't own the required number of slaves, so he was being forced to fight without any choice. Many of his followers were escaped slaves, and others were deserters like himself. In the eyes of his society, he was a traitor and agitator. The director passes no judgement, simply presents the facts. Unlike Robin Hood, Newton Knight is not turned into a hero of "the People" against the "wicked, rich King".

I liked that The Free State of Jones is so honest. There is no glamorization of the times. We see the rough clothes: all the dirt, even the dirt around the nail beds of Serena Knight, the first wife. I could almost smell the people. Having lived in Africa, where many people at that time didn't shower daily, I know what that would have been like. The houses are rough-hewn and offer bare shelter. The blood and gore of the fighting is authentic. It's all horrific.

The performance of Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight is remarkable. He is depicted as an ordinary man, a leader of ordinary men, not a glamorized figure. All the other actors were believable and play their parts well. It seems a reconstruction of an obscure part of the history of the American Civil War. It puts the case that there is another side to war that is not heroic, but is equally authentic. Gary Ross is examining war from reality and through reason, not glamorized or turned into myth.

Because it is so objective, the film will be enjoyed by people interested in history. Personally, I loved it. I consider this a great film, and would thoroughly recommend it to those who are prepared to look at this facet of the American Civil War objectively. My friends enjoyed the film, because they did just that, and had no mythology to have shattered.

This lack of romanticism and mythology may hurt at the box office. I notice it is already being called a failed summer blockbuster in some places. If you are expecting a summer blockbuster, this is not it. If you would enjoy a thoughtful, though-provoking look at history, this is for you.

No comments: