In February 1994, justice was finally served for Myrlie Evers
-- a mere three decades after the fatal shooting of her husband, civil-rights activist Medgar Evers
, and the two mistrials that left his killer, Byron De La Beckwith, a free man.
Faithfully documenting the events leading up to the white supremacist's ultimate conviction, Rob Reiner
's "Ghosts of Mississippi" is a well-intentioned but dramatically unsatisfying motion picture experience.
There is certainly an intriguing story to be told here, but unfortunately it isn't the one Reiner and screenwriter Lewis Colick
("Unlawful Entry") have chosen to tell. By focusing almost entirely on the trials and tribulations of Bobby DeLaughter -- the white assistant district attorney who took on the Evers case -- and the toll it took on DeLaughter's family, while relegating the Myrlie Evers
angle to the sidelines, the film resonates a been-there, done-that familiarity, particularly in light of the summer's "A Time to Kill".
The result is a finely acted, technically proficient piece that falls frustratingly short of the Oscar caliber to which it obviously aspires -- James Woods' scenery-nibbling portrayal of De La Beckwith being the sure-fire exception. In boxoffice terms, the "Ghosts" verdict will likely be delivered in favor of a respectful but not overwhelming audience response.
After a prologue set in 1964 during the minutes leading up to Evers' murder as his wife (Whoopi Goldberg
) and children watched a televised civil rights speech by President Kennedy, the story fast-forwards to the late 1980s, when DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin
) is assigned to the Evers case. After initially little to go on, DeLaughter is able to reconstruct the events of the past.
At the same time, his progressive immersion in the case costs him his marriage to Dixie (Virginia Madsen
), whose father was the presiding judge in an earlier De La Beckwith trial, while leaving his family open to terrorist threats. Shaken but remaining undeterred, DeLaughter sees the case through to its courtroom finale, closing an unpleasant chapter of the South's checkered history.
Handed his most heroic lead since originating the Jack Ryan character in "The Hunt for Red October", Baldwin seizes the opportunity, playing DeLaughter with an earnest, sympathetic conviction. Still, his closing courtroom arguments never reach the emotional crescendo required, but the blame could also be shouldered by Colick's script, which opts for accuracy over dramatic license.
Likewise Goldberg, as Myrlie Evers
, is solemnly passionate in what amounts to a series of extended cameos instead of what should have been a more evenly represented story. By keeping the spotlight on DeLaughter, we're robbed of getting a glimpse of the motivation that kept Evers' fight alive for more than 30 years.
Only Woods is able to completely transcend the staid material and layers of latex (masterfully applied by make-up artists Matthew Mungle and Deborah La Mia Denaver) as 73-year-old De La Beckwith.Bill Cobbs
also does some standout work as Evers' DJ brother, Charlie; the Evers' sons, Darrell and Van, play themselves in the film, while Yolanda King
, daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr., plays their sister, Reena.
As has come to be expected in Rob Reiner
pictures, production values are pristine, with director of photography John Seale, production designer Lilly Kilvert
, costume designer Gloria Gresham
and composer Marc Shaiman
lending their superb talents.
GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI
Sony Pictures Releasing
Castle Rock Entertainment
A Frederick Zollo
A Rob Reiner
Producer-director Rob Reiner
Screenplay Lewis Colick
Producers Frederick Zollo
, Andrew Scheinman
Executive producers Jeffrey Stott
Director of photography John Seale
Production designer Lilly Kilvert
Editor Robert Leighton
Costume designer Gloria Gresham
Music Marc Shaiman
Casting Jane Jenkins, Janet Hirshenson
Bobby DeLaughter Alec BaldwinMyrlie Evers
Byron De La Beckwith James Woods
Ed Peters Craig T. Nelson
Charlie Crisco William H. MacyPeggy Lloyd
DeLaughter Susanna Thompson
Merrida Coxwell Michael O'Keefe
Jim Kitchens Bill SmitrovichMorris Dees
Caroline Moore Diane Ladd
Dixie Moore DeLaughter Virginia Madsen
Running time -- 123 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13