The reaction to Free State of Jones among movie critics has been pretty lackluster, but most of the historians I’ve heard from seem to have liked it. (I liked it, too, for whatever that’s worth.) I suspect this has to do with the fact that the film’s narrative structure doesn’t adopt many of the conventions of storytelling.
Critics have taken the film to task because the plot meanders, because it seems to lack focus, because it tries to do too much, and because the story just sort of tapers off—it “fizzles out long before it ends,” as one critic put it. From a filmmaking standpoint, these criticisms make sense. Narratives aren’t supposed to meander and then fizzle out. Storytellers are supposed to keep things rolling along until events reach a dramatic crescendo and a full resolution. In Jaws, when Chief Brody detonates that air tank and sends chunks of great white shark into the stratosphere, you know the movie’s over.
Some historical stories conform to these conventions of dramatic narrative. Gettysburg establishes a few important characters at its outset, then adds in more and more narrative threads, intensifies, and finally reaches a grand climax of resolution. That happens to be the way the battle played out, so in that case the filmmakers could follow dramatic convention and be faithful to the events they were portraying.
But that’s generally not the way history works. One of the writers of the musical 1776 once quoted someone as saying, “God writes lousy drama.”
Free State of Jones hits its crescendo near the middle, as Newt Knight’s struggle against the Confederacy becomes an outright war. After this comes a long, dispiriting declension, in which much of Knight’s work is undone by the retreat from Reconstruction and the return to power of the same people he fought against during the war. The movie doesn’t end with an exclamation point or a period, but an ellipsis followed by a question mark.
Having read a lot of reviews of the film, I think critics would have reacted more positively if it had been a more straightforward Civil War film, a story of an insurgency culminating in the Confederate flag coming down in front of the Jones County Courthouse and the Stars and Stripes going up. True, that narrative would’ve been less choppy and rushed, and it wouldn’t have “fizzled out.” But Gary Ross made a deliberate decision to take a longer view of the Civil War era, one that includes the reversals of Reconstruction. Regardless of whatever liberties Free State of Jones takes with specific incidents or characters, that decision took guts.
And that, I think, is one reason why historians have reacted to the film more positively than movie critics and audiences. When you’re dealing with history, you don’t always get a story that conforms to narrative convention. With history, the story sometimes meanders. It moves in fits and starts, it doubles back on itself, and it tapers off into uncertainty. That’s exactly what happened in the case of Reconstruction. If you consider Appomattox to be the end of the Civil War, then the story makes good narrative sense. It all gets wrapped up in a neat package, with the various narrative threads resolved, the slaves freed, and the Union back together. But when you take the long view of the Civil War era—as historians often do and as Free State of Jones does—it’s a story of reversals, marked by lulls in the action. And it’s a story that does indeed fizzle out, just as the nation’s commitment to the war’s gains fizzled out in the 1870s.
Maybe that story isn’t as emotionally satisfying as the ones people are used to hearing about the Civil War. But I’m glad we got a movie that told it, even if it hasn’t caught on with critics and audiences.