The next recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book for my screening of On the Waterfront is this dramatic film featuring standout performances from Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as FBI agents investigating a highly charged case in the South.
In 1964, two FBI agents, Ward (Dafoe) and Anderson (Hackman) head to Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of three Civil Rights workers. They are both completely separate in styles, Ward, with his glasses, and suit is very much a man of his times, book smart, slightly nebbish, and very by the book. Anderson used to be a small-town cop, and knows how things work there, and isn’t afraid of going to extremes to get what he needs for a case.
As they arrive, the racial tensions in the town are incredibly high, a tinder box ready to blow, and the white power base, all deeply invested in the Klu Klux Klan, are eager to be rid of the Feds, and don’t aid in their investigation at all. The entire town, in fact, refuses to help, because they all know that once the Feds leave, everything will go back to the way it is… a very troubling place to live.
Parker has filled the film with an amazing supporting cast, including Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif, Stephen Tobolowsky, R. Lee Emery, and Micheal Rooker, and while the film has no surprises in story, it is still intense, and a troubling look at the times that were, and with the things going on today, one wonders how far we’ve actually come.
Both Ward and Anderson know that the local Sheriff (Gallard Sartain) and his deputy, Pell (Dourif) are heavily involved, alongside some local thugs, but getting anyone to talk takes some unexpected actions. There are some dark sequences as the film shows how blatantly inhuman we can as a species can be to one another.
Ward, initially, tries to reach out to a number of members of the community, playing everything by the book, and comes up against dead-ends constantly, and when Anderson and he come to a head, he finally admits that Anderson’s way may be the way to go.
From there, the law is a little circumvented in the pursuit of justice, and you realize that it’s sad that such extremes had to be taken, and worse still, to not only guarantee people’s civil rights, but also the right to exercise them.
This one was a wonderfully tense, and strongly crafted film, dealing with issues that we’d like to pretend no longer exist, but are still prevalent today. The entire cast turns in fine performances, and all of it rests on the able shoulders of Hackman and Dafoe.
Take a look at it if you haven’t.