Fascinating historical footnotes can make for interesting movies, provided the person making that movie isn’t determined to expand that footnote to David Foster Wallace-esque proportions. Co-writer/director Gary Ross takes on the Civil War-era true story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a farmer in Jones County, Mississippi who comes to lead a rag-tag group of army deserters, irate fellow farmers and escaped slaves in a guerrilla internal battle against the Confederacy. Ross does an effective job of setting up his conflict as an uprising against the Southern 1-percenters. Yet while the Civil War ends in 1865, this story winds its way through another decade-plus of Knight’s activities—and speeches—against Reconstruction-era injustice, even introducing a court case some 80 years later involving one of Knight’s descendents. And McConaughey’s Knight remains—despite his decidedly unique personal relationships—a figure with little to define him besides his righteousness. The intent may be to show right-side-of-history consequences of fighting for seemingly lost causes, but the result is a movie that rambles on, assuming that everything that happened to this man was equally worth putting in a movie.
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