Why does FBI agent Anderson (Gene Hackman) like baseball? Because, as he keeps telling people in Mississippi Burning, "it's the only game where a black man can wave a stick at a white man without starting a riot."
Were there in 1964 (or for that matter, have there ever been) FBI men like Anderson, who does not seem to own a black suit or a snap-brim fedora, who talks like a human being instead of a prerecorded announcement and shuffles slyly rather than striding officiously through an investigation? Were there, have there been, agents like his immediate superior Ward (Willem Dafoe), hiding a passionate moral (as opposed to a merely legalistic) commitment to the civil rights movement behind a prim manner and a pair of half horn-rims?
Who knows? And, finally, does it matter? For the business of these two agents in Mississippi, who are never referred to by their first names, is not to typify realistically an institution, but to represent two basic, conflicting human responses to being cast by chance in a tragic historical drama. Anderson and Ward are investigating the disappearance of three civil rights workers, two Northern college students and a local black -- a fictional case obviously inspired by the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, workers in the 1964 drive to register black voters in the Deep South.
But the aim of this movie is not purely, or even primarily, documentary. The truth of its testimony is not so much literal as gospel, using that term in its revivalist sense. Mississippi Burning is a cry of anguish turned into a hymn of desperate hope, a glory shout in which remembered indignities mingle with moral inspiration.
Ward, the idealistic agent, understands and relishes the symbolic significance of his case. If the bodies of the missing youths can be recovered and it can be proved that they were murdered by organized racism, then their deaths will be redeemed by martyrdom and justice. The movie argues that Ward's confrontational tactics, which include bringing in a huge investigative task force and attracting excessive national media attention, not only delay progress on the case but also stir more violent crimes in response: beatings, church burning, even a lynching.
Anderson, who was once a sheriff in a county like this one, is much more the compassionate pragmatist. He wants a quiet investigation, conducted through sidelong glances, little toe-scuffing chats with the locals and the free play of his instincts. He can kick into angry overdrive with a grin still on his face, and is not above conducting a shy, country-boy courtship of a key witness (Frances McDormand) to get on with his job, which, as he sees it, is simply to find the criminals, not change the world.
Hackman is probably the subtlest screen player of his generation. He is a genius at hiding his true feelings under humor, letting them show with a seemingly unconscious flicker of expression or an unfinished gesture. Dafoe stands up to him with the kind of flat-voiced certainty mastered only by men of few, but unshakable, principles. Though each learns something from the other, their relationship retains its pure scratchiness from beginning to end. These guys are never going to be buddies.