A BELATED REVIEW: I didn't see Mississippi Burning when it was released in 1988, though I still remember the uproar it caused. Loosely based on the FBI's investigation into the murder of three civil rights activists in 1964, it was damned for historical inaccuracy, for making white cops instead of black locals its heroes, and for reducing a significant historical moment to a genre picture. I finally got around to seeing it this weekend, and I have to admit I enjoyed it, though I think all three criticisms are entirely accurate. If you come to this movie expecting a powerful or even coherent political statement, you will be disappointed. If you come to it expecting an exploitation movie, though, then you'll have to admit it's a pretty good one -- much better than most, in fact, because Gene Hackman and Francis McDormand's performances are so good.
The biggest problem with the film is that it isn't willing to kick back and admit it's an exploitation flick, giving it a somewhat schizoid quality. There are at least three movies here -- a straightforward police procedural with flashes of Dirty Harry, a heavy-handed message-movie with liberal intentions, and a character study showcasing Hackman, McDormand, and Willem Dafoe. The filmmakers obviously weren't sure which film they were making, because they supplied it with not one, not three, but four endings. There is a Dragnet-style summation of the criminals' fates, wrapping up the cop movie. There is a wooden political speech of the kind that Rod Serling might have written and Gregory Peck or Spencer Tracy might have delivered, spoken instead by Mr. Dafoe. There is a well-acted but basically phony farewell between Hackman and McDormand. And then there's one more ending, one so generic that it might have concluded any of those three pictures -- and so it did.
The best reason to watch this movie is Hackman, who breathes subtlety and complexity into a story whose script had no room for either. The worst reason to watch it would be to find out what happened in Mississippi in 1964.