Two FBI agents with wildly different styles arrive in Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of some civil rights activists.
Gene Hackman is quite possibly our generation's finest actor…he's certainly in the conversation, no matter what personal favorites you might have. 'Mississippi Burning' is one of the best performances given by the now-retired thespian, although it has been somewhat forgotten, due largely in part to the critical backlash this film received in many corners of the media, due to the fact that it is 'based' on a true story, but gets a ton of the facts wrong.
It's a pretty good argument that the debate over fact versus fiction probably cost 'Mississippi Burning' a Best Picture Oscar (the honors instead went to the equally entertaining, but not as compelling Rain Man) the year it was released, but its changing of the 'real truth' to tell a 'larger truth' shouldn't be a mark against any film, let alone one this good.
The movie stars Gene Hackman and a young Willem Dafoe as a pair of FBI agents, sent into rural Mississippi to investigate the murders of three men (all of them civil rights workers) – one a Catholic, one a Jew, and one an African American. There's no mystery here who did the murders – primarily members of the local police force and fellow friends in the Klu Klux Klan – the drama comes from whether agents Alan Ward (Dafoe) and Rupert Anderson (Hackman) will be able to pin the crimes on them, since no one in the small town is talking…and anyone who does, is quickly given 'southern justice' by the other locals.
While Dafoe gives a sharp performance as a young straight-laced, by-the-book, federal agent, it's Hackman's character that is much more interesting, partially because he's from the South himself and partially because he was raised by a father who himself was a racist. Anderson also realizes that they may have to bend (and quite possibly break) the rules in order to bring the murderers to justice. The friction between do-gooder Dafoe and the more realistic Anderson is a big factor in the overall appeal of this film. The movie also offers the chance for Hackman to show his softer side, when he meets and becomes drawn to the local wife (played by Frances McDormand) of the racist deputy sheriff (Brad Dourif), who is one of the men responsible for the murders.
The film has gotten its fair share of criticism over the years, and I have some big problems with the movie as well, just in terms of the way all the characters are presented. Aside from the deputy's wife, there doesn't seem to be one white person in town who is even remotely non-racist. It seems as if every one here is a caricature of the worst possible bigot imaginable, and while it's certainly true that people like this did (and do) exist, painting every white person in the town with such a broad brush doesn't do this movie any favors. Likewise, it seems that every person of color in the town is meek, scared, and totally incapable of standing up for himself/herself. While the film is indeed powerful as-is, it could have been much more so had the filmmakers been a little more diverse on both sides of the color line.
But regardless of whether one has issues with the history as presented in the movie, the real reason to pick this title up is for the incredible work done by Gene Hackman, who turns in another outstanding performance in a career full of them (his final film, 'Welcome to Mooseport', aside). He's surrounded by some pretty strong talent here, but there's not a moment in the film where Hackman isn't in command, and whatever value this movie does have – either to spark a historical conversation about race relations or just as solid entertainment – is almost completely due to his work here.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Mississippi Burning' arrives on Blu-ray in a clear (non-blue) Elite keepcase, which houses the 50GB disc along with an eight-page booklet featuring an essay about the movie by film historian Julie Kirgo. There are no front-loaded trailers on the Blu-ray, whose menu consists of a still image matching the artwork of the box cover, with menu selections running across the bottom of the screen.
The Blu-ray in this release is region-free.
'Mississippi Burning' gets a very solid – if not quite spectacular – 1080p transfer onto Blu-ray. My first impression was with how nicely the color balance here is. The movie has always had a brownish earth-tone like appearance to it, and I was happy to see there wasn't an attempt to amp up the color scheme in any way or tinker with the look of the movie. At first, it may appear as if the video is rather flat, but the first scenes that take place outdoors in the daylight will reveal just how much depth and detail is contained in this transfer.
Film grain is still very much a part of the presentation, which leads to some black level issues when it comes to 'Mississippi Burning's nighttime scenes (of which there are a good deal). Fortunately, the levels aren't so bad as to make those scenes hard to distinguish, but the darker scenes do appear noisier than those that take place in daylight.
The biggest problem with this transfer is in terms of dirt and debris, as a great deal of it still appears on the transfer. It's noticeable at times, but not to the point that it will distract from one's enjoyment. However, it was one of the reasons for me not giving 'Mississippi Burning' any higher of a video rating than I did.
In terms of glitches, there's ever so slightly a hint of motion jitter, which is most noticeable during the opening and closing credits. However, it's actually present throughout the film, but not as evident as Parker is a director who likes to keep his camera moving most of the time. Other problems like banding or aliasing are not an issue.
The featured track here is an English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio one that, despite its stereo limitations, does a pretty good job with separation of sounds. Dialogue is crisp throughout, and the remaining ambient noises and soundtrack music are nicely mixed with the spoken word. There are no noticeable problems or glitches in the audio, such as dropouts or hissing in the track.
In addition to the 2.0 lossless main track, this Blu-ray also offers up an Isolated Score Track, which is also presented in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Subtitles are available in English only.
Despite the criticism 'Mississippi Burning' received for not depicting the events of its story accurately, it remains a powerful movie about racism in America, highlighted by one of Gene Hackman's most memorable performances and some equally impressive acting from co-star Willem Dafoe and a cast of familiar character actors. This one is definitely recommended.