Sacco and Vanzetti
Documentary of immigrant injustice is a haunting history lesson
By Devin D. O’Leary
Sacco and Vanzetti
Directed by Peter Miller
I’ve always been fascinated with the image of Sacco and Vanzetti—partially because I know so little about the actual case that propelled them to infamy. I know them as stoic poster children for the anarchist movement. As potential martyrs to the cause of social injustice. As the subject of countless art projects, posters and folk songs. But I can’t say that I know the exact circumstances that made them such counterculture icons.
Luckily, Peter Miller’s new documentary Sacco and Vanzetti is here to set the record straight. There isn’t anything fancy or particularly revelatory here. If you’re well-versed in the life story of these two men, then Miller’s brief-and-to-the-point film probably won’t deliver much new beyond the standard talking heads, archival photographs and occasional field trips to areas of historical interest. If, however, you’ve only a passing knowledge or curiosity, you’re apt to find yourself well-enlightened by film’s end.
Miller, co-producer of the 2001 Ken Burns documentary Jazz, takes a cue from his former collaborator, relying heavily on a series of letters to get the mood across. The film doesn’t dig too deeply into the pasts of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants who arrived in Boston at the turn of the last century chasing some form of the American Dream. Tony Shalhoub provides the voice of Sacco, while John Turturro fills in for Vanzetti. Though the dramatized letters (composed, most likely, in prison) don’t speak much about the duo’s backstory, they do impress upon viewers the idea that these men were smart, caring and quite eloquent—hardly the portrait of the mad foreign bombers red-baiting authorities made them out to be.
The story hits its stride in the year 1920. Sacco and Vanzetti, two young men with very different lifestyles but similar political consciences, were picked up in connection with a payroll robbery at a Massachusetts shoe factory. Over the next seven years, Sacco and Vanzetti became an almost unparalleled cause célèbre. Their lengthy legal battle, broadcast around the world, became the original “Trial of the Century”—long before Trials of the Century started showing up every couple of years.
We get observations, opinions and historical background from a wealth of sources, including author Studs Terkel, Sacco’s still-living niece, Vanzetti’s neighbor, an Italian director who helmed a 1971 drama about the trial and big-time history stud Howard Zinn. What emerges in hindsight is a portrait of two immigrants railroaded by an American justice system presided over by virulent racists.
The case against them was ludicrously weak. Were these two men communists? No. Socialists? Kind of. Anarchists? Most definitely—but in the most sincere and philosophical sense. Were they “innocent” in the broader meaning of the term? Possibly not. They were draft dodgers, followers of militant anarchist Luigi Galleani and definitely armed when they were arrested. Were they guilty of the specific crime for which they were tried? Almost certainly not.
The film chronicles the various lapses in judgment that led up to Sacco and Vanzetti’s conviction: the approximately 150 defense witnesses who were dismissed (because they were Italian), the singular prosecution witness who was lauded (because he was white), the obviously faked evidence, the climactic confession of a prison inmate who actually claimed responsibility for the robbery. Taken as a whole, Sacco and Vanzetti calls to mind Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s more current (and exponentially more urgent) 1996 film Paradise Lost: The Child Murders in Robin Hood Hills. Both films are less interested in questions of guilt and more interested in questions of how the American legal system does and should work. Is justice simply a question of convicting bad people, or is there a more esoteric issue of the fairness, equality and civility that is (or at least should be) the hallmark of our system?
Miller works quickly to draw parallels with today’s American climate. It’s not like he has to work all that hard, either. In the wake of World War I, America was all too eager to blame its problems on the scourge of immigration. Sending “terrorists” like Sacco and Vanzetti to the electric chair seemed like the right thing to do. So what if their civil rights were trampled a bit in the process? With our own president gleefully suspending the writ of habeas corpus and the increasingly virulent debate over illegal immigration, 1927 doesn’t seem all that far away from 2007.
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