Movie review of “Free State of Jones”: Matthew McConaughey plays a Confederate deserter who joined African Americans in a Civil War rebellion and later during Reconstruction. Rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.

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Like the 1989 Civil War drama “Glory,” writer-director Gary Ross’ “Free State of Jones” is based on a rarely dramatized aspect of the War Between the States.

Unfortunately, it’s so ambitious that it’s constantly straining to find a focus. Whereas “Glory” told one story well, “Free State” can’t settle down and concentrate. The effect is sometimes exhilarating, but covering several decades of Southern history turns out to be an energy drain.

Only one memorable character emerges: Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight, a Mississippi farmer who deserted the Confederacy and ended up joining African Americans in a rebellion that ultimately included Reconstruction.

Movie Review ★★½  

‘Free State of Jones,’ with Matthew McConaughey, Keri Russell, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sean Bridgers. Written and directed by Gary Ross, based on a book by Victoria E. Bynum. 139 minutes. Rated R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images. Several theaters.

Ross relies heavily on his charismatic star to carry Knight’s story without making Knight appear to be the centerpiece. But it’s a struggle, particularly when the filmmakers don’t demonstrate much interest in the fact that he apparently had two live-in wives.

Newton’s story was previously filmed as the heavily fictionalized “Tap Roots,” an obscure 1948 George Marshall production starring Van Heflin and Susan Hayward. Critics regarded it as a dim rip-off of 1939’s “Gone With the Wind”; it’s based on a 1942 novel.

Ross’ film is based on Victoria E. Bynum’s 2001 book, “The Free State of Jones.” They both lean toward a nonfiction approach, though Ross follows narrative tradition by blending real characters and creating new ones that are more symbolic than historical.

The director of “Pleasantville” and the first “Hunger Games,” Ross stages the battle scenes efficiently. But few of the many death scenes have much emotional weight.

Editor’s note: Corrected release date of “Glory” from 2006 to 1989.