You'd have to be a complete idiot to ruin a story as good as the one told in "Ghosts of Mississippi," which means that director Rob Reiner is only a partial idiot.
The movie, which recounts how a reluctant but ultimately courageous Mississippi prosecutor went after and finally convicted Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 murder of civil rights worker Medgar Evers, ought to be a lot better than it is. After all, Bobby DeLaughter proved that it ain't over till the fat lady sings, and somewhere in a dank Mississippi penitentiary, the old slimebag De La Beckwith gets to listen to the fat lady all by himself for the rest of his life.
How could anyone miss, particularly when they cast James Woods as the crackpot shooter, with his bizarre theories of race, his gibberty old-man-with-dentures ways and his utter smugness. Indeed, Woods is the best thing in the movie: His "Delay" Beckwith is completely believable, an oozing slug of rectitude who thought himself heroic for blowing a .30-06 through a man's back from 200 feet out on a dark night, and who evidently openly boasted of it at Klan meetings throughout the '60s and '70s, riding a kind of psycho's celeb circuit among the sickos and dwarfs who frequented such groupings.
And the movie is also at its best where Reiner reins in his own smug political correctness and simply tells a story, which is, after all, a classic detective variant. This is the staple of popular fiction, the "old crime," with late justice being better by far than no justice, of which typology Ross MacDonald was the great specialist in the field, and now even James Ellroy is having a crack at it.
Thirty years after the murder, in a different but not that different Mississippi, DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin, better as a Southerner than you might imagine after his shaky turn as Dave Robicheaux in "Heaven's Prisoners") has to literally re-invent the case. The rifle, the bullet, the autopsy reports, even the official trial transcript is strangely missing; the file has been scavenged until all that remains of the first two trials (mistrials both) is three sheets of paper; the culprits are either souvenir hunters or those who'd rather see the past left dead than recalled to ugly life.
What drives DeLaughter? It's not quite ambition; he's already well-connected to the county establishment and seems firmly in the ascension. He's no liberal; he's not much of a friend of the African-American community, for he basically spends his time putting its men in prison. He has no black friends. He's not even eager when the D.A., anxious to appease national pressures stirred by Evers' media-savvy widow, Myrlie (Whoopi Goldberg), orders him to take another look at the scant files, apparently more for appearances' sake than anything.
But, as they say: in for a penny, in for a pound. His conscience awakened and his horror incited by the documents that remain (he learns that the bleeding man, with his heart blown out, still crawled up his driveway and died in his wife's arms as his young children looked on hysterically), he begins to sift through the evidence, re-interview witnesses, look for the rifle and piece together an indictment for the grand jury.
Bill Macy, so unforgettably whiny in "Fargo," has a nice turn as the investigator assigned to the case, also reluctant, but eventually so fired up he works himself into a lather, especially when he uncovers the smoking gun, as it were. There's a nice cameo by Lloyd "Benny" Bennett, who was the original investigator on the case; he's one of those rare non-actors who appears comfortable on screen. Both these gentlemen appear so snake-tough and gun-loaded that they need not fear the Klan in the way that other, less able men might.
But "movie stuff" keeps happening. Why, when DeLaughter's wife leaves him, does the woman he next meets with have to be so model-beautiful? Reiner can't seem to break away from the visual banality of the Hollywood movie: cute kids, beautiful women, beautiful houses, nice new Jeep Cherokees. Susanna Thompson, Mrs. DeLaughter No. 2, is such a trophy woman you can't escape the idea that she's awarded to DeLaughter for his goodness.
As for Goldberg, hers is an impossible task; she plays what is essentially the Mother Virtue of the piece, a brave, upstanding, intelligent, noble woman. I don't know who could have done better and maybe her appearance in the role helped in getting both financing or the real Myrlie Evers' enthusiastic cooperation, but she's at a loss. She's an idea of purity, not a character, and whatever it is that is special about Goldberg goes untapped in this utterly conventional appearance.
When Lewis Colick's script sticks to legal and investigative procedures, it's thrilling. When the noose is finally yanked around Delay's scrawny chicken neck and he sees he's going to the big house, it's profoundly satisfying.
But when it ceases to dramatize and insists on sermonizing on unchallengeable platitudes like the need for brotherhood, usually delivered in a throaty voice by a glycerine-eyed Baldwin dead straight to the camera, it becomes annoying.
Reiner should have had faith in his sensational material to make its points without a minister in the pulpit. The movie would have been much better, and much shorter, too.
'Ghosts of Mississippi'
Starring Alec Baldwin and Whoopi Goldberg
Directed by Rob Reiner
Released by Castle Rock
Sun score ** 1/2
Pub Date: 1/03/97