Judge Neal Solon aspires to be an Italian political radical-anarchist.
"All you people ought to be like me,
And work like Sacco and Vanzetti,
And everyday find ways to fight
On the union side for the workers' rights.
- From Woody Guthrie's "Two Good Men"
As should be apparent from the lyrics above, and from the fact that Woody Guthrie actually dedicated an entire album to songs about Sacco and Vanzetti, the two have become "the people's" heroes, symbols of the unjust treatment of the American working class. Peter Miller's (The Internationale) documentary, Sacco and Vanzetti attempts to tell the story of these historical figures and to use it to inspire its viewers to political action or, at the very least, out of political apathy.
Facts of the Case
If you're not familiar with the story of Nicolo Sacco and Batolomeo Vanzetti, here is the gist of it: Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrants who lived in Massachusetts in the first quarter of the 20th century. In addition to being Italian, both men were also political radicals-anarchists. In May of 1920, the pair was arrested; they were suspected of having been involved in a robbery and double murder that had taken place nearly a month before. Despite the fact that both men had strong alibis and that there was little, if any, actual evidence to connect them to the crimes, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted, their appeal was denied by the same judge who had overseen their original conviction, and they were executed.
Sacco and Vanzetti is a film that is ostensibly unconcerned with guilt or innocence of its titular characters. Instead, the film focuses on the fact that their famous trial was a blatant miscarriage of justice-a trial run awry in an atmosphere of xenophobia, political suspicion, and political corruption. The film makes its argument quite compellingly, but its claims are really nothing new. Former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis made essentially the same statements about the trial in an official proclamation in 1977. What Peter Miller tries to do with this film that is different is to draw parallels to modern political events, such as the imprisonment of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay while humanizing Sacco and Vanzetti, rather than deifying them.
That's not to say that Miller doesn't have an obvious affinity for Sacco and Vanzetti and, perhaps, idolize them a bit himself. His political leanings are clear to anyone who examines his filmography or who recognizes the most frequent talking head in this film, historian Howard Zinn. But the baring of these political leanings, far from being a detriment to the film, is necessary for drawing the comparisons between the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and modern xenophobia and political paranoia.
Despite what Miller might claim, however, the question of whether Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent does play a significant role in the effectiveness of this film and of their story. Were their guilt a forgone conclusion, few would care about whether their trial was properly conducted, however ignorant of the political and legal foundations of America that might be. It is the probability that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent, in addition to being railroaded, that gives the modern viewer pause.
Miller paints this possibility of innocence both by filling his film with characters who tirelessly fight to establish Sacco and Vanzetti's innocence, even eighty years after their deaths, and by painting a picture of Sacco and Vanzetti as human beings in pursuit of the American dream. Miller does the latter though readings of the pair's prison writings, with Sacco and Vanzetti being voiced by Tony Shaloub and John Turturro, respectively. The obvious question being raised is, what reason did these anarchist have to trust in the American legal and political system?
On the whole, the presentation can be a bit dry and perhaps too similar, stylistically, to the documentaries of Ken Burns, with whom Miller has often collaborated, but the story that Miller tells is strong enough to carry the film. His distilling of the masses of historical information and cultural references to Sacco and Vanzetti is both political and fair, clear and concise. For these balances alone the film should be commended.
Sacco and Vanzetti's presentation on DVD is solid. The film is presented in a clean, anamorphic transfer and is free from distracting visual defects, save those on older footage excerpted from various sources. The audio reproduces both sung and spoken words without issue. The biggest disappointment on the release is the collection of special features. The most interesting of the features is an interview with director Peter Miller. This is done in the now somewhat typical style of having a question appear printed on the screen followed by a videotaped response from Miller. Even this feature, however, has its problems. For one, the questions haven't been carefully proofread, one example being the following question: "Why did you chose [sic] to use other interpretations of the story, through art, literature and film, in your film?" What's worse, the director doesn't even directly answer the posed question. As is often the case with these features, it feels as though the questions were crafted after the fact, to loosely fit the recorded response.
The remainder of the features overlap significantly with this interview, in the case of the Sacco and Vanzetti FAQ, or with the film itself, as with the archival photo gallery. There are a few good tidbits in the onscreen, written FAQ that aren't covered elsewhere, but for the most part, these features are redundant. It is unfortunate that more couldn't be put together for this release. A feature on the representations of Sacco and Vanzetti in popular culture would have relevance and been of great interest; instead, the production of the DVD relies wholly and directly on the thoughts and opinions of the film's creator or on excerpted information from the film itself.
Regardless of the DVD package's shortcomings, Sacco and Vanzetti is worth seeing. The pair's story is, and always has been, interesting, and Peter Miller's take on it is a welcome addition to the continuing dialogue that surrounds it. While the comparisons to the modern day that Miller draws are unlikely to change opinions and may actually risk the reevaluating of Sacco and Vanzetti as "terrorists," which they almost certainly were in some capacity, they are compelling to the point that they seem almost obvious. (The people who idolize Sacco and Vanzetti have probably already drawn Miller's conclusions about Guantanamo Bay.) Still, they deserve serious consideration.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Director Interview
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