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Sacco and Vanzetti

Ryan Scott

Director Peter Miller should be commended for his determination to craft this well known story without bombast and sensation, but rather with intelligence and compassion.

Sacco and Vanzetti

Director: Peter Miller
Cast: Tony Shalhoub, Studs Terkel
Distributor: First Run Features
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Willow Pond Films
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2007-08-21

The ideology which Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti aligned themselves may no longer remain a potent political force, but the sense of injustice about their trial can still rouse outrage. It is no wonder that it remains one of the most well known cause célèbres of the 20th century. Anxieties about communism which underscored the case have since been replaced by other concerns, but its deeper themes of political manipulation of the American legal system remain timely, a point that the film doesn’t shy away from emphasizing.

Director Peter Miller states in the special features interview that he didn’t strive to prove the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti. He set out to question whether the men received a fair trial. This motive is clear from the range of opinions and facts forwarded by historians and case experts, which he has assembled. Not all of them are sympathetic to Sacco and Vanzetti’s cause, but they show compellingly that the case was prejudiced before either man took the stand.

For those new to the case, a recent study by David Kaiser would be a more thorough start (Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti, University of Massachusettes Press, September 1985). The documentary covers the essentials, but it is the interpretation of the events that is the main concern. Miller hasn’t sought to recreate the past in order to justify his argument and there is no single narrator to guide the audience. Rather, each of the assembled experts brings their knowledge and sensibilities to the details of the case and its broader historical context.

Before the trial begins, Sacco and Vanzetti are introduced separately. A black title screen with their name precedes each of the segments about them as if to remind us that it is Sacco and Vanzetti. They may have had a common language and a shared political conviction, but they differed as much from each other as they did from the larger Italian community and from perceptions of what a radical should be.

Their class background is singled out as peculiar, given their politics. Both came from wealthy peasant stock. It is not the film’s task to analyze the connection between class and political consciousness, and a documentary couldn’t attempt this without seriously impeding the flow of the story. However, its inclusion suggests that politics cannot be reduced to a knee-jerk recreation. Something deeper influenced these men.

For Vanzetti, Christianity was at least in part the source of his convictions. He is recorded as saying that Christ was the greatest socialist, a comment which would have enraged both Christians and socialists. The source of Sacco’s beliefs was less well defined but no more material. Neither his home nor working life was particularly unhappy. In some ways he fitted the ideals of the system he was fighting. He worked hard and was happily married. If he wasn’t an anarchist he may have been a poster boy for capitalism. The only reason given for his beliefs is that he couldn’t bear the destitution and hardship around him. He was motivated by compassion.

Is this so strange? Larger historical forces may shift societies, but individual decisions are in part personal. Radicals possess a quality which differentiates them from the community of which they are a part. Otherwise, their actions wouldn’t be radical. In the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, anarchism provided the moral framework where other movements had failed. To paraphrase the historian Nunzio Pernicone, the anarchists were not crazed bomb throwers. They were driven by a sense of justice and belief in human dignity that the American law and government enshrined.

The America they came to in the early 20th century was an arduous place for Italian immigrants. Many earned low wages for their labor and lived in cramped conditions. Prejudice against them was widespread. Newspapers ran cartoons depicting Italian immigrants as a plague rats. What is more surprising is that these conditions didn’t radicalize more immigrants. However, most embraced the ethos of their new home. The anarchists whom Sacco and Vanzetti associated with where hardly representative of the broader community. Without laboring the point, the film highlights how xenophobia and a fear of dissent can become intertwined.

Compassion for one’s fellow human being is not proof of innocence. However, given that the prosecution and presiding judge Webster Thaler sought to persecute the beliefs of Sacco and Vanzetti, we should know what these men stood for. If either of them committed a crime, it was not likely out of blood lust or greed. Miller wants the audience to better understand these men and their ideals to show that good, noble people were executed on 23 August 1927.

A sense of injustice is reinforced by the use of extracts from their letters. Read by John Turturro and Tony Shalhoub, these texts give us greater insight into the men. It also personalizes them so they are more than the still faces staring from photographs. How can one not be moved when Shalhoub as Sacco reads, “The storm continues to pass upon our souls, one more terrible than another. I’m still alive and how I live I do not know.” Miller could be accused of simply pandering to emotions if the performance didn’t broaden our understanding of the men and the case through our imagination. It isn’t a substitute for reason, but both can point reason in new directions. One doesn’t have to look any further than this Sacco and Vanzetti case to find how rationality can be exploited for irrational ends.

This approach isn’t at odds with the overall enterprise of representing history. Some of the most effective texts or exhibitions are those which use carefully selected documents and materials from the people involved with minimal commentary. E.P. Thompson’s seminal The Making of the English Working Class (Peter Smith, June 1999) included long passages of direct quotation. He hoped that the book would allow ordinary people of the past “to speak directly” to future readers. This documentary achieves a similar end. Though actors are being used, Sacco and Vanzetti are able to address an audience through them, an audience the real Sacco and Vanzetti probably never imagined speaking to.

The group the two men were involved in was centered around Luigi Galleani. Galleani wrote Cronaca Sovversiva (Subversive Chronicle), which advocated extreme methods of political change. Authorities long suspected that Galleani or his followers were responsible for a series of bombings in a number of American states in the years after the First World War. Following the attempted assassinations of Massachusetts State Representative Leland Powers, Boston authorities and Attorney General Alexander Palmer were determined to prosecute whoever was involved. The only evidence they had was a political pamphlet from the group. This pamphlet led to a Brooklyn print shop where a fellow Galleanist worked. Among the effects found there were letters to Sacco and Vanzetti instructing them to destroy anything which connected them to the anarchist movement. Based on this information, the authorities wanted to prosecute them for a robbery in South Braintree and an earlier one in South Bridgewater.

The pace changes when the case is discussed. Whereas Miller went to great length to establish the character of the men and the time in which they lived, the details of the case are presented with little embellishment. Though they are well known to anyone who has followed the trial, they still retain the ability to shock. Before being convicted for the murder for which he was executed, Vanzetti was tried for a robbery in South Bridgewater. It is hard to doubt that a miscarriage of justice took place when 15 witnesses, including the women Vanzetti sold fish to, saw him on the day of the robbery. It is equally hard to accept that politics were not the motive behind the conviction when Judge Thaler said to a former university associate, “Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards the other day? That should hold them for a while.”

The irregularities in the proceedings continue in the murder trial. The historians refrain from making any qualifications except to express disbelief at such flagrant injustice. I should emphasize that there is no hard evidence to prove the men were not present, as there was no hard evidence that they were present at the scene of the crime. However, in the American legal system, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution. People are innocent until proven guilty. On either side of this case, they lacked hard evidence. Most of it was circumstantial. For instance, the Harrington and Richardson .38 which was taken from the guard matched a gun found on Vanzetti. According to the film, this gun was a popular make.

Considerable time is spent discussing one of the most controversial aspects of the case: bullet number three. This bullet, so called because it was the third bullet found at the shooting, was used to link Vanzetti to the murder. Kaiser, who wrote a study of the case, offers a startling interpretation. He doesn’t deny that the bullet was fired from Vanzetti’s gun; the markings on the gun prove this. He doubts that the bullet was fired at the crime scene, though, because as the footage clearly shows, bullet three doesn’t match the other bullets found. Whether the bullet was planted afterward cannot be conclusively proved. Kaiser admits this, but that something was wrong with the evidence is starkly evident on screen. If there is any moment in the film which highlights the injustice of the trial, this is it.

The rest of the facts compound this. Prosecution witnesses who 'identified' Sacco and Vanzetti were proved to be absent from the scene. One witness saw Vanzetti at the wheel of the getaway car, but Vanzetti couldn’t drive. These details leave little doubt that the judgment on these two men had been decided before they entered the courtroom. The inclusion of the famous confession by Celstino Madieros, who knew details of the murder not made public, is a sad coda to the case.

Despite the depth of research and range of insightful opinions, the film omits two well known aspects of the case. Only when defense attorney Fred Moore is sacked and replaced by William Thompson is Moore’s influence on the case considered. It is stated that there is conjecture that if Thompson had joined the case earlier, the trial may have gone differently. At no point are any of Moore’s mistakes discussed. This is an oversight at odds with the thoroughness of the movie.

Another omission is the letter Moore sent to Upton Sinclair, who wrote the novel Boston about the case. Miller responds to the importance of the letter in the FAQ text found in the bonuses. He may dismiss this point as irrelevant, but given its notoriety in the case, he should have addressed it in the body of the film. There is no doubt that the people whom he interviewed would have had an illuminating opinion on the point.

Otherwise, the bonus section doesn’t strengthen the impact of the film. From the way Miller compiled the material and interviews, his reasons require no further elaboration. Where it is useful is in showing the filmmaking process. That the film could be so demanding and costly makes one appreciate Miller's determination to explore injustice in the American judicial system.

The films ends with four of the main commentators reflecting on what the case means to them. They all espouse the view, introduced to at the beginning, that the story has not lost its significance. The abuse of the justice system for political ends is still a danger, if not a reality. This film may only represent one interpretation of the case, but Miller should be commended for his determination to craft this well known story without bombast and sensation, but rather with intelligence and compassion.


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