By now Sacco and Vanzetti have entered the realm of historical legends associated with unresolved and divisive issues. The Rosenbergs persist as martyrs for the Cold War, and still no consensus has been reached on whether they were traitorous spies or railroaded scapegoats. Like the Rosenbergs, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were tried in a climate of fear and prejudice, but they were essentially presumed guilty because of their Italian backgrounds and their association with anarchist activists. Judge Webster Thayer instructed the jury that even though Vanzetti may not have committed the particular crime, "he is nevertheless culpable because he is the enemy of our existing institutions." Peter Miller's documentary Sacco and Vanzetti presents a reasonably fair accounting of the trial and ordeal of the two Italian immigrants. Interestingly, the docu uses the same argument that Judge Thayer used, that the real issue of Sacco and Vanzetti is not their actual guilt or innocence.
In 1920 a small band of thieves stole a shoe factory payroll and murdered a paymaster and a guard. Sacco and Vanzetti were caught on a streetcar carrying revolvers and shotgun shells. Both men were proven to be associated with known anarchists, including some that advocated violence. Sacco and Vanzetti pieces together the facts of the case just as in a modern crime-solving television show, and convinces us that the two men were wrongly tried, convicted and sentenced. The court accepted unreliable eyewitness testimony, while all of the defense witnesses were discredited because they were Italian-Americans. Subsequent investigation of the murder bullets has determined that they were prosecution fakes. After the initial conviction, appeals were turned down under suspicious circumstances. A credible jailhouse confession by another criminal (who knew many details of the crime and claimed it was a straight, apolitical robbery) was dismissed.
Sacco and Vanzetti gives us the full measure of what at the time was the Trial of the Century. Protests grew in cities across the country and in European capitols. The liberal press kept the issue in the headlines while Communist and Anarchist papers callously used the trial to promote their own agendas. Money poured in for the defense, but powerful interests in the state of Massachusetts advanced to a predetermined verdict. To head off last-minute appeals, the governor appointed a blue-ribbon panel to reassess the matter. Its chairman drafted the group's opinion (guilty) even before all of the defense testimony had been given.
Director Peter Miller has arrayed a fine selection of spokespeople, including a relative still in Italy and the daughter of the murdered paymaster. Historians Howard Zinn and Mary Ann Trasciatte stick to the facts and when arguing the case and do not claim that the two men were innocent of other acts of political subversion and perhaps even violence. We learn that Sacco and Vanzetti were followers of the revolutionary anarchist Luigi Galleani, and associated with men that carried out bombings and attempted bombings against 'enemies of the working class.' The previous year the Galleanists had tried to murder the state Attorney General, and just before their arrest one of Sacco and Vanzetti's associates died 'by throwing himself out a window' after being severely beaten by the Bureau of Investigation in New York.
Reacting to what they considered acts of terror, representatives of the state struck back by circumventing justice at every turn. The pair were likely tried, convicted and executed for a crime they had nothing to do with. In the eyes of liberals, Sacco and Vanzetti became martyrs for the oppressed immigrant working man. Italian film director Giuliano Montaldo shows up in a new interview, and we see clips from his socially-committed 1971 feature film that starred Gian Maria Volontè and Riccardo Cucciolla.
Studs Terkel helps explain the gravity of the issues and the trial's enormous impact. Sacco and Vanzetti many stirring letters written while in prison are read in character by actors Tony Shalhoub and Jon Turturro. In all fairness, we're told that the men often responded to interrogators with political speeches about worker revolt. Sacco and Vanzetti concentrates on Vanzetti's later correspondence, including the famous letter in which he states that his victory will be posthumous ... as borrowed for the lyrics of Ennio Morricone and Joan Baez' song Here's to You: "Let agony be your triumph." Vanzetti went to his death not unlike Dickens' Sidney Carton, saying that it is better to have died this way than to have forever remained a malcontent grousing on street corners.
Sacco and Vanzetti makes a strong connection to current events when it cuts suddenly to Islamic prisoners, classified as neither criminals nor prisoners of war, being shuttled blindfolded in an extra-legal U.S. detention center. The implication is that Italian-Americans have now become accepted in America, but new minorities have taken their place as targets of fear and hatred. The parallel is wholly convincing.
Upton Sinclair followed the 1927 execution with his 1928 book Boston, a fictionalization of the case. Other writers have been alluding to it ever since. Maxwell Anderson's play Winterset is reportedly based on the story. Both Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie wrote and performed songs about the duo. To end the docu, Arlo Guthrie appears on camera and sings his father's song.
First Run Features' enhanced presentation of Sacco and Vanzetti is an excellent pressing of an exceptionally good documentary. It's neither as slow nor as sentimental as a Ken Burns piece, and although we know that the filmmakers sympathize with the defense, the discourse is more than reasonable. Director Miller answers questions about the docu and his interest in the subject in an extended interview. The Frequently Asked Questions text pages follow the through-line to the conclusion that Sacco and Vanzetti were martyrs for social justice. This may rankle viewers who expect a 'balanced' approach, but I have yet to see a similar requirement levied against a docu on, say, Klaus Barbie. Sacco and Vanzetti has to be counted as an advocacy documentary with a pointedly fair attitude.
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