Sacco and Vanzetti were two Italian immigrants from very different backgrounds who nevertheless arrived in the U.S. in the first decade of the 20th century and settled in and around Boston, Mass., finding work as industrial laborers. Vanzetti in particular had high hopes for his life in this "country of gold," but both men were deeply distressed by the poverty they found, particularly among the poor, immigrant population; Vanzetti once aptly described the majority of the people he lived among as not living in America, but under it. Consequently, both Sacco and Vanzetti became followers of Luigi Galleani, the militant Italian-American anarchist thinker and labor activist who advocated the use of terror and violence as a means of smashing the repressive State. Galleani's followers, some of whom are believed to have been responsible for a series of bombings targeting state officials, and World War I in general only intensified the already strong paranoid suspicions surrounding "foreigners," particularly Italian-Americans, and political radicals, and it was on the eve of the so-called Red Scare of 1919-20 that Sacco and Vanzetti becomes friends. Their fates, however, would become fatefully and inextricably linked the afternoon of April 15, 1920, when a paymaster at the South Braintree, Mass., shoe factory where Sacco worked, and a guard were shot and killed in a payroll robbery by an armed gang of thieves. The police were already looking for perpetrators of an earlier robbery in nearby South Bridgewater, hold-up men whom police believed to be Galleanists, and the investigation soon led them to Sacco and Vanzetti, who were arrested "as suspicious characters" while riding a streetcar together. The case against them was flimsy — there was no evidence linking either man to the robberies — but they were nevertheless arrested and tried; Vanzetti would also be convicted of participating in the South Bridgewater. The whole case, which would drag on through appeals throughout the 1920s, struck a deep chord: For many, Sacco and Vanzetti represented everything threatening to the American Way of Life, but some strongly believed in their innocence, and felt they were being persecuted for who the were (immigrants) and what they believed in (anarchism), not for what they had done. Writers wrote poems, novels and pamphlets on their behalf, painters painted portraits and the sensational — and notoriously unfair — trial, conviction and electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti became known as the "case of the century," reflecting as it did a crisis point in our understanding of what it means to be American.
Peter Miller's film depends largely on expert interviews for historical perspective, but the real heart of film lies in the letters Sacco and Vanzetti wrote during their seven-year imprisonment to their friends, family and defenders, and which were posthumously edited and published as a book (Tony Shalhoub reads the letters of Sacco; John Turturro reads those of Vanzetti). The letters, particularly those of the eloquent Vanzetti, remain as powerful today as they were 80 years ago, reflecting as they do the idealistic and deeply empathetic human beings behind the images of the bomb-tossing anarchist that had been widely disseminated at the time. Watching the film, it's hard not to feel a cold chill of recognition, particularly when Miller's interviewees discuss immigration, patriotism and war, and civil liberties versus homeland security in a time of national crisis, and becomes very easy to understand how and why the case continues to haunt the American psyche. leave a comment --Ken Fox
If you could do a search on the terms "Italian immigrants," "anarchists" and "Red Scare" as they're used in this short but incisive documentary about the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, and replace them with "illegal Mexicans," "terrorists" and "the War on Terror," you might think you're watching a story taken from this morning's headlines.