Starring: Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand
Director: Alan Parker
When it was first released back in 1988, this film about a notorious real-life race crime that took place in the deep South in the 1960s ran into some heat, both for its depiction of white folks riding to the rescue of the beleaguered black man and for the liberties it took with true events. Even if you think its critics had a point, it would be churlish to deny that it’s a solid, effective piece of work with its heart in the right place.
Hoping to discover the whereabouts of some missing civil rights activists, a pair of FBI descend upon a small town in Mississippi where the Clan ride round in limousines bedecked with flags. The locals have the cheek to suggest that the disappearance of the four youngsters is a publicity stunt, but as the Feds escalate their investigation, the Clan employ ever more extreme terror tactics to ensure that everyone’s mouths stay shut.
Evoking a world of sun-faded frocks and sleepy barber’s salons, director Alan Parker shows the same keen eye for a frowsty, flyblown period setting that he did in Angel Heart, but in general he quietly subordinates himself to the main purpose of the movie, which is to serve as a showcase for a meaty performance by Gene Hackman, who plays Anderson, the older and more pragmatic of the FBI agents. The heart of the script is the back and forth between Anderson and his idealistic, college-educated superior, Ward (Willem Dafoe) – that, plus the mild flirtation he had going on with the wife of one of their prime suspects (a sympathetic turn by a young Frances McDormand).
Born in the South himself, Anderson has a deep understanding of the causes of racial hatred allied to an equally strong desire to stamp it out. As he urges Ward to match the Clan’s threats and intimidation with dirty tactics of their own, his relationship with his strait-laced partner is reminiscent of the one between Sean Connery and Kevin Costner in The Untouchables – or it would be, if it wasn’t for the way that Hackman brings a sense of humour and humanity to the role as well as a belief in justice. And it’s the subtlety and charm of his performance that lifts Mississippi Burning above the average. 7/10
The transfer is a little soft and grainy at times, but the exteriors are bright and sharp, with plenty of leafy detail in the scene where they wade through a swamp looking for the missing boys’ car. Close-ups are generally sharp too – there are times when you can count the freckles on Hackman’s forehead. The night scenes with flaring headlights have a cool, crisp quality, and McDormand’s pretty pastel dresses also come up nicely. 7/10
9-min interview with Willem Dafoe – he grumbles about the flatness of his character and reveals that Hackman could be “cranky” on set. ~ 20-min interview with Alan Parker, who talks about writing his own script after falling out with the original screenwriter Chris Gerolmo, the challenges of filming on location (primarily in Lafayette, Alabama) and Hackman’s way of homing in on the heart of a scene. ~ !6-min interview with Chris Gerolmo, which is very informative about the process of getting a script made, and also interesting in that it differs markedly from Parker’s account in some respects. ~ Audio commentary with Alan Parker – not a very flowing commentary, but some interesting remarks emerge, as when the director reveals that they burnt down three churches in the first week of shooting. 9/10