June 23, 2016 6:26 AM EDT

The real Newton Knight was a poor white Mississippi farmer who fought in the Civil War, only to desert the Confederate Army to lead a group of Union loyalists known as the Knight Company. Free State of Jones, written and directed by Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit), is a fictionalized rendering of Knight and his quest, an ambitious, messy sprawl that shouldn’t be taken as gospel.

Even so, the movie works as a quasi-historical ramble, thanks largely to Matthew McConaughey as Knight and the quietly valiant Gugu Mbatha-Raw as his second, common-law wife, the freed slave Rachel. McConaughey plays Knight partly as a folk hero striving to better the lives of former slaves, though he’s careful not to lay the gloss of purity on too thick: now and then he lets us see the glimmer of opportunism in Knight’s eyes. Still, his decency shines through, and it doesn’t hurt that the wiry, whiskery McConaughey has the face of a haunted daguerreotype, gaunt and unapologetically human.

–S.Z.

This appears in the July 04, 2016 issue of TIME.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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