Mississippi Burning

August 21, 2012

Mississippi Burning is a big, ungainly picture that crashes into a mess of important and powerful issues. Waving his broad brush again is film director Alan Parker, the maker of Angel Heart and Midnight Express, who brings a heavy hand to all his movies.

This time Parker is telling a story based loosely on fact, of an FBI investigation of the disappearance of two white civil-rights workers in a small town in Mississippi in 1964. (They were murdered by the townspeople, as a prologue shows.) The story unfolds from the point of view of two mismatched FBI men on the case.

Thus it is yet another treatment of racial injustice in which the main characters are white, not black. However, this doesn’t mean the movie’s an automatic sell-out. More troubling is that Chris Gerolmo’s screenplay uses the FBI agents as representatives of opposing viewpoints, and makes a buddy story out of it.

Gene Hackman plays a Southern-born agent who believes in sliding gently into the investigation, not rocking the boat, and using underhanded tactics if it means getting to the truth. Willem Dafoe, last seen essaying the title role in The Last Temptation of Christ, plays Hackman’s opposite number. He’s a Kennedy liberal, straining to change the world, and doing it all according to bureau policy. Like the army of FBI men who swarm over the small town, he’s always seen in his narrow black tie and suit.

These two carry on a somewhat predictably testy relationship. The movie never quite seems to know how to view them; at first the gung-ho Dafoe is as much a subject of derision as the local bigots. And the movie encourages us to root for Hackman’s outside-the-law methods, because the end apparently justifies the means.

Mississippi Burning is important, and potentially potent, material. But Parker reduces much of the conflict to cartoon proportions; all of the townspeople, including the sheriff (Gailard Sartain, a tobacco-chewing veteran of the Ernest movies) and deputy (Brad Dourif), look like the moronic results of heavy inbreeding. The one multi-dimensional character is the mayor, played by Lee Ermey, Kubrick’s hysterical drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.

Parker’s cartoon approach trivializes the significant issues here; although, in spite of this, Mississippi Burning does splatter some of its dramatic targets. It’s an obvious film, but the sheer weight of Hackman’s humanity keeps it in touch with some kind of reality, and his relationship with the deputy’s wife (good performance by Frances McDormand) creates the film’s most complex element.

The movie already won over the National Board of Review, which named it the best picture of 1988, and it’s expected to be nominated for some Oscars. All of which goes to proves that if you bang people over the head with something, you will get their attention.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

A lot of people seemed to fall for the movie, which is still puzzling (it has a high rating on IMDb even today). It got seven Oscar nominations, winning for Peter Biziou’s cinematography.