Sacco and Vanzetti Movie Review
Peter Miller's Sacco and Vanzetti could have been the purest bathos, being as it is the moving story of how two Italian immigrants came to America looking for a better life, only to find racial prejudice and railroaded justice. A producer on some of Ken Burns' landmark docu-series, Miller has a firebrand's sense of injustice -- more often muffled in Burns' down-the-middle films -- which he lets show here from the start in no uncertain terms, but doesn't completely allow to wrest the story away from him. That is, the desire to make political points is very much in evidence here (why else to place lefty historian and People's History of the United States author Howard Zinn as one of the primary talking heads?) but it doesn't often overwhelm Miller's need as a documentarian to record the truth in some unvarnished fashion. Not often. There are times, of course, when the indignation and need to place Sacco and Vanzetti in the hallowed hall of left-wing martyrs takes over completely, as when one interviewee states that the story should be referred to as "The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti."
The story itself is heartbreaking enough without embellishment. Vanzetti, the loner, was a bookish and rather gloomy peasant's son and baker's apprentice, while Sacco, a gregarious family man, came from a rather more prosperous family; both end up in the Boston area in the early twentieth century and start drifting into progressive politics. The two fall into the orbit of Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani, who openly advocated violence against the system -- not an empty threat in America at the time when class strife and targeted bombings of authority figures had provoked panic on the part of the establishment, which saw no problem with throwing away the rule book when it came to punishing radicals, especially the darker-skinned, Catholic new arrivals.
In 1920, on the flimsiest of excuses, Sacco and Vanzetti are arrested for supposedly taking part in a payroll robbery that resulted in two murders. After a monstrously unfair trial -- in which one jury member was heard to say to another, "Those guineas may be innocent," only to be answered by, "They should hang anyway" -- based on no evidence and presided over by a judge who cared more for the defendants' political views than culpability, and years of appeals, they were executed in 1927. Protests over the execution were frantic and constant (martial law was even declared in Boston), reaching as far abroad as Africa.
Miller uses a battery of contemporary historians, as well as aged neighbors and relatives of the two to weave his story together. While a more than competent documentarian, his approach borders on the dry, enlivened mostly by the readings of Sacco and Vanzetti's tragic correspondence (Tony Shaloub does the honors for Vanzetti, while John Turturro does passionate work with Sacco's bittersweet and poetic musings). The parallels to today, with terrorist bombings and a government over-eager to curtail civil liberties and scapegoat foreigners to combat it, are easily made; too easily in fact, with commentator after commentator talking about the case's relevance to today without getting into specifics. A conclusion comparison the case to the post-9/11 era does rather too glib a job; appropriating Sacco and Vanzetti as the all-purpose symbols of resistance, in some sense denying them their unique humanity just as their executioners did.