At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Mississippi Burning “88”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Mississippi Burning “88”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Crime Thriller/Stars: Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, Gailard Sartain, Stephen Tobolowsky, Michael Rooker, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Badja Djola, Kevin Dunn, Tobin Bell, Frankie Faison/Runtime: 128 minutes

Contrary to the tragic law of popular opinion that existed not only when I was in school, but even to this day in fact, the field of study that is United States History is by no means a topic that is, or should even remotely be considered as, by any stretch of the imagination boring. Nor for that matter is it merely a series of dates that in their own individual ways are of great significance to this country and her denizens. Instead, I would like to present the argument that American History, much like the history of the world, is a vibrant three-dimensional tapestry of sorts that can show us something about our past in order to teach something about where we are now and where we could wind up going back to if we are not careful. Yet although there are quite a few moments on this tapestry that are uplifting and truly inspiring there are also some that aren’t as pleasant. I say that because one of those points on the tapestry, without question, should unquestionably be in regards to the things that went on in the South during the Civil Rights Movement in the 50s and 60s towards people who advocated for African Americans to be treated equally to everyone else. Indeed this was a time where not only were people being harassed, bullied, and imprisoned for this belief, but even worse they also ran the significant risk of being the recipients of physical harm (if not worse) due in no small part to such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan (or KKK) having members in a lot of high places in small Southern towns to aid their hatred-fueled agenda toward African Americans or anyone that they deemed as “inferior”. Yet in the case of the story at the heart of the movie I am reviewing for you today, 1988’s Mississippi Burning, the Klan and their allies didn’t just hurt activists nor did they simply lock them up in the town jail. Rather, they just straight up murdered them and then tried everything in their power to cover up their evil acts when the FBI came a’calling to investigate. Suffice it to say then this is one story that needed (not deserved mind you, but needed) to be told it would have to be told in an unflinching, honest, and powerful manner. Not just to honestly depict the genuine evil that perpetrated these despicable atrocities, but to really put you in the time and place where they occurred as well. Having seen the finished product, I think it can safely be said that the creative team on this film was able to accomplish just that. Indeed it might have its issues here and there, but at the end of the day Mississippi Burning is an extremely well-acted and made look at one of the darkest times in this country’s history and how we as a society should do what we can to ensure it never comes again. Not just for those who survived, but also for those who tragically lost their lives in pursuit of a right they should have had all along.

The plot is as follows: Loosely based on a true story, Mississippi Burning takes us to the fictional county of Jessup in (where else) Mississippi in the year 1964. It is here where we witness as a car with three young men are out around twilight driving to parts unknown on a rural road. For these three boys however, this simple car ride is about to transform into a full-blown nightmare as we soon see that they are quickly accosted by a pack of vehicles, a cop car among them, that then proceed to tailgate them off the road before the men in the other vehicles surround their car and violently murder them. From there, the film then drops us in another vehicle with two men by the names of Ward and Anderson respectively. A pair of men who we, rather quickly learn, are two FBI agents who have been dispatched to investigate what happened to the boys from the beginning. Not just because the FBI takes an interest in the well-being of American citizens mind you, but because those boys, unbeknownst to us at the time, were individuals who were part of the civil rights movement trying to get African Americans the right to vote in a nearby locale before the tragic incidents that we saw take place at the beginning of the film occurred and they have been reported missing by their HQ after failing to check in. It isn’t long though before we see that the pair, despite working for the same employer and being assigned to work this particular case together, are very much as different as night and day. This is because while Ward is someone who is very much by the book in how he approaches things, Anderson (perhaps due to the fact that he himself was a sheriff in a town much like the one they are headed to before joining the Bureau) is more in synch with the way things are done in these parts and is also more willing to bend the rules a bit in pursuit of getting to the truth let alone the people responsible. Yet as opposite as these two men are in their methods, it isn’t long before we see that there will be one more thing that unites them. That being the level of hostility that they are treated to by local law enforcement as well as a lot of the denizens within the overall community who take to them about as kindly as they did to the missing boys that they are trying to find. Thus with attacks instigated by the KKK, with aid from certain community members, on the terrified African American community in town getting worse by the day and the entire town, for different reasons, not really wanting to help them in any way, can our dynamic duo set aside their differences and do everything in their power to not only discover what happened to those boys, but also apprehend the parties responsible? That I will let you see for yourself….

Now right off, it should be noted that the work done behind the camera on this slice of cinema is nothing less than absolutely gripping. This starts with the work done at the helm by the iconic yet underrated Sir Alan Parker and honestly I really dig his work here dear reader. Indeed Parker, much like he did with the equally as gripping Midnight Express from 1978, might be taking a few liberties with the real-life story at the heart of the film, but he nevertheless brings a slowly simmering yet incredibly effective degree of both intensity and suspense to the proceedings whilst also skillfully peppering in more than a few moments of heartbreaking action including scenes of buildings blowing up and/or being set on fire as well as people being horrifically attacked among other examples into the mix. As a result, not only are we as movie goers floored by what we witness as the movie goes on, but we also are left with a sense of dread and unease as we wait to see what happens next in the story. Along with the top-notch work done by Parker, the film also contains phenomenal work done by the costume and production design teams. I mean in every way possible from the clothes being worn by the various characters to the cars we see on the roads and even the locations involved this is one film that definitely looks authentic to the time and place where these events took place. Of course, the other element that undeniably helped in that regard is the fact that this film was actually shot in locations across Mississippi. Indeed by making that creative choice, we see that this provides the film with an extra degree of authenticity to say nothing of evocativeness and even realism that not only adds significantly to the intensity of the story being told, but also permits to hit perhaps a wee bit harder than if this had simply been filmed on the backlot of a major studio back in L.A. or whathaveyou. Of course, I would be amiss if I didn’t take the time to mention the work done on this film’s musical accompaniment by the gifted composer Trevor Jones. Indeed not only does the film do a beautiful job of incorporating several gospel songs into some of the more emotional moments of the story, but Jones’ own score manages to be a beautiful mix of thrilling, heartbreaking, and even foreboding all mixed together in magnificent synchronicity. Ultimately dear reader if there really is an issue that could be found with the work done behind the camera on this particular slice of cinema, it would be the fact that a lot of the events that you see unfold in this film definitely, as even admitted by the director and writer of the film and as touched on earlier, have been inflicted by that horrific movie magic ailment known as “creative liberties”. With that in mind though, I would just like to point out that this is very much meant to be a work of fiction. That and honestly this film, for all of the aforementioned creative liberties, does manage to really succeed in showcasing for an audience the horrors that went on in that part of the country at that time and the impact that they had on communities in a manner that is both honest and respectful. Suffice it to say that when you take that into account dear reader, there truly is no denying that the work done behind the camera on this film (including some hauntingly magnificent work from cinematographer Peter Biziou) manages to be the kind of work that is nothing short of hauntingly gripping in the best way possible.

Of course, the other big element that helps this film keep you riveted from beginning to end in the gripping and undeniably emotional manner that it does would have to come in the form of the exceptional cast of players operating in front of the camera. Without a doubt in my mind, this starts with screen legend Gene Hackman in the co-lead role of Agent Rupert Anderson. Indeed Hackman was always a performer who gave audiences his all in every role he ever played until his retirement in 2004 and here is no different. I say this because as Anderson, Hackman gives us a character who, unlike his partner on the case, knows from personal experience that this is not going to be a case which will work out in their favor solely by operating by the book in terms of legality. Rather, they are going to have to go to a place where bending the law is perhaps the only way to get them the results they are after. At the same time though, Hackman also does a great job at imbuing his character with a bit of an “awe-shucks” country-style charm and demeanor that not only helps him get information from key people in the community, but also operates as a wonderful cover for when he has to transform into a bull in a China shop at certain points including a scene with Brad Dourif near the end that is an odd mix of terrifying yet applause-worthy all rolled into one. Suffice it to say that this is easily one of the 10 best performances of Hackman’s career and one that definitely sticks with you. Alongside the incredible tour de force performance given by Hackman, we also are treated to an incredible one from the equally as iconic Willem Dafoe as the other co-lead Agent Alan Ward. Indeed Dafoe does a wonderful job at giving us a character who, unlike his partner, is very much a straight arrow, by the book, and perhaps a wee bit naïve type when it comes to getting the job done. As the film goes on however and events begin to escalate, we see that Dafoe starts to slowly but surely realize that perhaps his partner’s way of doing things might just be the only way to get the justice they both are seeking even if that aforementioned way of doing things does repulse him to a slight degree. Suffice it to say it’s a wonderful turn from an actor who has given audiences more than his fair share of them. Suffice it to say that when you also incorporate equally as hard-hitting support efforts from such talents as the always engaging Frances McDormand in a role that is truly nothing short of poignant and heartbreaking, Brad Dourif who is nothing short of chilling as a sheriff’s deputy whose sliminess and despicableness truly know no limits, R. Lee Ermey as the sleazy town mayor who finds himself increasingly exasperated by the FBI’s efforts to get to the bottom of a matter he’d rather not see them solve, Gailard Sartain, Stephen Tobolowsky in a vastly more sinister role than the one he played in Groundhog Day, Michael Rooker, Pruitt Taylor Vince, a scene-stealing cameo for Frankie Faison, and even the big screen debuts for iconic character actors Kevin Dunn and Tobin “Jigsaw” Bell respectively it’s clear that this slice of cinema might have its issues, but this is one cast of powerhouse talent that definitely helps to make up for those shortcomings and then some in a big way.

All in all and at the end of the day is Mississippi Burning a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination? Honestly that is definitely not the case though not for lack of effort. At the same time though, is this a terrible slice of cinema that I think should just be avoided at any and all cost?  Honestly, I would not say that either dear reader. Indeed is this film sad? Truly. Is it heartbreaking? Quite often. Is it hard to watch? Absolutely. Is it powerful? Undeniably so. Yes I suppose I could recommend this film based on the strength of the work done both behind and (especially) in front of the camera by a nothing short of phenomenal cast of talent no matter how big or small their amount of screentime in the overall runtime of the film may be and those definitely are reasons to watch the movie without question. With that being said though, and for the first time in quite some time, those components are not the main reason why I am going to choose to say that this film is a genuinely great film to say nothing of one that you should definitely watch dear reader. Rather, I think the main reason why this is a great film is because of what it asks all of us to do as people. That being that it asks all of us to let it take us by the hand and transport us back to a bleak time and place in American history. One where people were being attacked on a variety of fronts by other people due to a truly vile mixture of hatred, racism, bigotry, prejudice, and just plain evil only to then, after having taken us through this undeniably emotionally gripping wringer of a tale, proceed to challenge us at the end by all but point blank asking us if things in the decades since have truly gotten any better. A question that we might not like the answer we come up with, but which we need to answer all the same. Not just so we know where we can improve ourselves as individuals, but hopefully where we can begin to maybe inspire others to do so as well. Make of that dear reader what thou will. On a scale of 1-5 I give Mississippi Burning “88” a solid 4 out of 5.