Documentary Revisits Controversial Case to Raise Questions about Civil Liberties
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in Boston on August 23, 1927 for the robbery and murder of two men carrying a factory payroll of $15,776 dollars on a street in downtown South Braintree, MA. Although the prosecutor had convinced a jury to sentence the pair to death based on questionable circumstantial evidence, the nagging doubts about their guilt or innocence which had turned the case into something of a cause celebre have remained unresolved to this very day.
For not only was there already an air of prejudice against the defendants due to their being Italian immigrants, but they were also admitted anarchist militants and staunch advocates of violent revolution via bombings, assassination and any other means necessary. Still, there was precious little to connect Sacco and Vanzetti to the crimes for which they’d been charged, and the world was watching to see whether such unpopular characters could get a fair shake from the vaunted American legal system.
The answer suggested by this damning documentary directed by Peter Miller is a resounding “No!” Inspired by the parallels apparent in the air of paranoia about Arabs and Muslims which has permeated the culture in the aftermath of 9/11, he decided to revisit the “Red scare” which, 80 years ago, had led to a similar rush to judgment of innocent political prisoners, then, because of their Communists leanings.
Relying on a combination of archival footage, the prison letters of the doomed dead men walking (as read by impersonators Tony Shahloub and John Turturro), the reflections of sympathetic lefties like Professor Howard Zinn, and the folksinging of Arlo Guthrie, Miller does a decent job of convincing any open-minded viewer that Sacco and Vanzetti were indeed framed. But he has a harder challenge on his hands when it comes to turning the two into martyrs denied fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
The problem is that since they were probably inclined to commit far worse atrocities in the name of their radical cause anyway, the legal railroading doesn’t seem like that much of a miscarriage of justice. Common sense says you can’t really expect a nation to sit on its hands and do nothing once it has identified terrorists intent on destroying it from within.
Nonetheless, Sacco and Vanzetti is an informative primer on the uniquely American delusion about the presumption of innocence till proven guilty, and other grandiose notions about freedom and fundamental fairness. As such, this flick is far more likely to strike an emotional chord with those naive enough not to know that the criminal justice system has always been stacked in favor of the rich, the white, and the well-connected.
Excellent (3.5 stars)
Running time: 81 minutes
Studio: First Run Features