Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Mississippi Burning (1988)

I miss you, Gene Hackman.

He earned an Oscar nomination for best actor for his work in this fine 1988 feature from director Alan Parker (The Road to Wellville, The Commitments). This drama, inspired by real events in the southern United States in the 1960s, was part of a solid string of films Hackman made in the late 1980s (The Package, Bat 21, Class Action). Hackman, who turns 83 in 2013, hasn't made a film since 2004. Gene, please don't let Welcome to Mooseport be your final screen appearance. You deserve better.

His is one of several performances that make Mississippi Burning a powerful film. He's FBI Agent Rupert Anderson, sent with Agent Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) to find three civil rights workers who are missing in Jessop County. Viewers know the trio is dead, killed in the film's opening minutes. Anderson and Ward suspect as much, but have to find their bodies.

The investigators have two very different ways of approaching their work. While Ward is by the book - he'll show up and start asking questions, Anderson plays the angles. He'll drop by for a talk, friendly or not. The veteran agent will use charm, from a bouquet of flowers to noting one's looks, to help a potential source of information feel at ease. Anderson has a nasty edge too, if needed.

Mrs. Pell (Frances McDormand) is one potential source Anderson wants to tap. Her husband, Clinton Pell (Brad Dourif), is a deputy with Jessop County police. He's also a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Part of his alibi rests on his wife. Anderson and Ward see a weak link in his story. But can they get his better half, a woman who detests the racism in her community, to talk?

Here's McDormand several years after her debut in Blood Simple and more than a decade before Fargo brought her wide attention. Her character is stuck in a marriage with a man she no longer loves, afraid to speak up in a community of whites that largely supports segregation. Stephen Tobolowsky shines in his few scenes as Clayton Townley, a high ranking member of the KKK who warns his followers about the communist forces from the northern United States who want to integrate blacks with whites. He's scary good. Tobolowsky makes an impression, just like he did several years later as Ned, the insurance salesman, in Groundhog Day.

The friction between Anderson and Ward is standard issue for such crime films. Ward is keen to bring in as many bodies as needed to find the activists. Anderson warns him a greater federal presence will only fan the flames between blacks and whites in Mississippi. Dafoe occasionally laments how blacks are treated. He's the weak link in a movie with many standout performances from supporting players such as R. Lee Emery, a really creepy Michael Rooker and Gailard Sartain.

This film is set in 1964, not even 50 years ago. It's sad to know such things as separate water fountains, seating areas and brutal beatings were all too common just several decades ago. Mississippi Burning helps viewers remember.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Mississippi Burning was nominated for seven Oscars, but won just one for cinematography.

R. Lee Emery is the voice of Sarge in the Toy Story films.

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