I’m not exactly what you’d call a history buff or nut, but I do love reading books or watching documentaries on the subject. It’s amazing how no matter how many stories are told, no matter how many angles are taken, there’s always something fresh that can be uncovered. That’s particularly true when it comes to war, where by virtue of the number of people involved, the spread out nature of the conflicts and other factors there are seemingly countless stories to be told, either of those who were leading the way and setting the strategy or the infinite soldiers who are on the ground bringing the fight themselves. Sometimes those stories are straight ahead and sometimes they’re a bit more unusual.
Free State of Jones, the new movie starring Matthew McConaughey, certainly falls into the latter category. McConaughey plays Newt Knight, a Confederate soldier who grows disillusioned with the army and the cause it’s fighting for. One day he deserts and, rallying a coalition of local farmers and former slaves, declares independence from the Confederacy itself, citing many of the same principles it declared in its separation from the Union. The army he left, though, has other ideas and sets out to tamp down the revolution Knight has started.
The first poster features a black-and-white extreme close-up of McConaughey, who attempts to be looking into your very soul. He’s a bit grimy and dirty, so it’s clear he’s been into something, but there’s nothing on the poster to make it clear what that is. The title treatment at the bottom is just above the promise that this is based on the “incredible true story” but what that is remains a mystery here.
The theatrical poster features the same thousand-yard glare from McConaughey, this time pulled back from the camera a bit and with a musket draped over his shoulders. He’s standing in front of a forest background, shown we’re going to be in the wilderness for the story and we’re told at the bottom that that this is based on an “incredible” true story.
The first trailer starts off with Union and Rebel armies approaching each other, Jones telling a young boy who’s out there with them to stay close and stay safe. After the battle we see that boy has died and Jones has had enough so he runs and becomes a deserter, something the Rebel army isn’t too fond of. He raises up an army of people who are tired of sending others to die for questionable causes and they take the fight to the Confederates who are tracking Jones. Eventually he, with their help, establishes his own little nation there in the swamps.
It’s not a bad trailer, but it’s also not terribly great. The story gets decently outlined here but it feels like a bit too much is shown, especially that ambush toward the end. It has the sense of feeling a bit rushed, like an extra 30 seconds would have helped a lot in fleshing things out a bit.
The second trailer starts with Jones organizing his army as we get shots of those he’s opposing and the people he’s mustering. Then we get the same church ambush scene we saw in the first spot and more scenes of conflict as Jones and his rebels fight for their right to be free.
It’s a super-short trailer but does work to continue selling the movie’s main value proposition, which is McConaughey showing off an accent and being all rebellious.
Online and Social
The movie’s official website is a pretty well-done affair. When you load the site there’s a prompt to watch the trailer and more, but we’ll get to all that in due time since it’s all replicated in the main content menu as well.
“Testimonials” is the first section on the site, with quotes from historians, civil rights leaders and others talking about how the movie is an important one for people to see, that it’s a good movie in and of itself and more. These are like the positive review quotes many sites pull, but because of the nature of the movie having non-critics provide these makes a lot of sense.
Skipping over the “Get Tickets” section, there’s a prompt to visit FreeStateOfJones.info, a site with more information on the real events that inspired the movie.
That’s followed by “Video,” which has both trailers as well as several TV spots. “About the Film” has a synopsis as well as a Cast & Crew section with backgrounds and bios on the major actors and filmmakers.
There are a number of stills from the movie in the “Gallery” and a bunch of candids from production in “Behind the Scenes.”
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
There were several TV spots created that featured mostly the same footage we’ve seen in the trailers, selling the movie as an untold story from the Civil War that you can’t miss.
I’m sure there was plenty of online advertising and outdoor billboards placed as well.
Media and Publicity
A big feature in The New York Times talked had Ross, who both wrote and directed the movie, talking about how this is based on a true story and how much time he devoted to researching things. He also talked about how too much shouldn’t be read into Knight, that he’s not a hero of race relations, just a good guy trying to do the right thing at a tough moment in history. The cast talked about similar themes at the movie’s premiere.
As usual with historical dramas I like that there’s an emphasis on the actual events that inspired the movie. Not only is there the overt plea that yes, this is based on a true story, but there’s the backstory that’s offered on the site to fill in people’s knowledge of what transpired. That’s such an important part of campaigns for movies like this and it’s unfortunately an area too many pushes fall down in.
The whole campaign, though, doesn’t present a super-compelling reason to see the movie. While learning about something that’s a really interesting part of American history is a good thing in and of itself, the campaign asks the audience to draw the connection between the story being told here and the events of the present day. There certainly is a connection, but it could have been stronger as an explicit part of the campaign. I like the emphasis on McConaughey, who’s very hot right now, but it could be stronger overall.