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by Nick Pinkerton
March 27, 2007 9:51 AM
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REVIEW | Old Scars: Peter Miller's "Sacco and Vanzetti"

Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco from Peter Miller's "Sacco and Vanzetti." Photo courtesy First Run Features.

Odd as it seems to say of a movie that covers a crime that's more than 80 years old, but Peter Miller's "Sacco and Vanzetti" is distinctly behind the times on the latest developments of its subject. In December 2005, a letter surfaced in California, purportedly penned by Upton Sinclair during the research for his novelization of the trial, "Boston," in which the author discusses a closed-doors meeting with the condemned men's trial lawyer, Fred Moore, who confirmed their guilt and discussed how he framed their alibis. This is by no means conclusive evidence -- Moore, who left the case on bad terms, had reason to be vindictive -- but it does seem like the sort of thing someone in the midst of editing a documentary exhuming the case would deem worthy of inclusion, at least as a postscript.

"Sacco and Vanzetti," like Michael Winterbottom's wretched "Road to Guantanamo," sets out to condemn an atmosphere of hysterical, flimsily supported accusation, but finally can't resist firmly establishing that those accusations, of course, definitively aren't true, changing the subject from the pure process of accusation to the need for vindication -- similar to the glaring flaw of the "homosexual accusation" subgenre of the Forties and Fifties (hey, "Tea and Sympathy"'s back on Broadway!). Howard Zinn, one of Miller's most relied-upon talking heads, put the matter succinctly in an interview conducted by Z Magazine after Sinclair's letter surfaced: "Even if the person that you're defending may turn out to be guilty, that does not really eliminate the reason that you came to this person's defense in the first place." What should matter is that, innocent or guilty, Sacco and Vanzetti, immigrant anarchists condemned on flimsy evidence for a 1920 Massachusetts payroll robbery that left two dead, very likely did not have a properly conducted trial, and politics, more than conclusive evidence, probably tilted their verdict.

Miller, a sometime associate of Ken Burns, seems to be designing his career as a radical counterpoint to Burns's massive Histories of Record, a "People's History," if you care to use Zinn's phrasing. Miller's previous directorial outing, "The Internationale," followed the lifespan of that titular Socialist anthem. "Sacco and Vanzetti," all told, could probably integrate smoothly into a night of PBS programming, though it displays a disorienting lack of structural rigor; the sequence of events and locations are unclear, and those unfamiliar with the case will be frustrated in waiting 15 minutes to hear a single date established, while the film's early chapters work to establish the men in a manner in keeping with Mencken's "'philosophical' anarchists of the uplifting and sentimental variety... dreamers whose Utopia was scarcely to be distinguished from that of the Quakers" (an implicit claim much questioned by subsequent historical inquiry).

The tangled facts aside, plenty of time is devoted to the film's closed circle of gray liberal commentators celebrating the groundswell of radical unity that resulted from the case ("Print the legend"), culminating in Arlo Guthrie strumming his father's reflection on the injustice of the trial, "Red Wine" (good enough cause to run for the exits). In assembling his doc, Miller's selective arrangement of the available facts would seem to echo Sinclair's own conclusion in going ahead with "Boston": "It is much better copy as a naive defense of Sacco and Vanzetti." Sinclair supposedly kept silent in worries that Sacco and Vanzetti's established guilt could taint future trials of radicals; Miller's movie is book-ended with contemporary footage and narration rehashing that same point used ad nauseam to hawk art-house re-releases: "As relevant now as ever!" (Was history, then, irrelevant before 9/11?) What's excluded in Miller's taken-for-granted syllogism (1927=2007, Southern/ Eastern Europeans=Moslems) is any sort of insight into how issues of immigration and cultural integration have changed or remained constant, and the real meaning all of this holds for our Republic.

[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]

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10 Comments

  • sam23 | March 30, 2007 3:59 AMReply

    Oh my god, "Daisychain44"...those who can't do, criticize? Snooze-fest...target indieWIRE audience right there. Rigorous.

  • daisychain44 | March 30, 2007 2:33 AMReply

    I guess those who can't do, criticize. Is the good critic, by chance, an heir to the Pinkerton strikebreaking legacy? Or is his breathtakingly offensive rant intended as some kind of snarky homage to the name?

  • biker13 | March 29, 2007 10:41 AMReply

    In response to Brandt:

    Of course we need critics. The question is, how does a website or magazine or newspaper choose the critics they give space to? Why IW grants space to a 'snarky' reviewer instead of a serious critic...that's the point. I don't care if the review is positive or negative - I love negative reviews (Manohla writes the best) - but take a moment to read Hoberman on this film, or Phil Hall's Film Threat piece, and you'll see professional criticism in action.



    Also, its sort of humorous to hear "brant" complain about these posts which criticize this critic. The "full due process" of writing for public consumption is publication and then reception. If the critic (or his supporters) can't take criticism, then stop writing for the public.



    Finally, "brandt" is right, I'm a little unfair in my criticism of IW and their focus. They do cover truly indie films alongside the celebrity vanity stuff, and they deserve credit for that. In fact I just noticed they posted a great interview with this director (Peter Miller).

  • brant | March 29, 2007 8:39 AMReply

    IndieWIRE wouldn't choose to hire film "reviewers" if they didn't believe in the full due process of filmmaking: reception follows production. Obviously the editors at indieWIRE are more interested in debate. Basically all the whiny posters on here (and elsewhere on the site) are always pulling out the same old bitch card that's been played since the beginning of time, Why do we need the critic? And it has nothing to do with independent production: Check out all the nauseating "think pieces" that have accompanied the "critic-proof" release of 300, basically using that crap's success as evidence that critics are useless.



    As far as this review goes, people keep on commenting on its "inaccuracies"...of which there seem to be none. Therefore i would assume this hubbub is all about not hurting the delicate genius of the filmmaker, who's probably being praised from here to Timbuktu for his film. It's encouraging that a review can open up a debate such as this.



    And as a response to "biker13," it seems a little unfair to bemoan indieWIRE's lack of covering independent cinema, especially in light of their Undiscovered Gems series, and trumpeting of such works as Four Eyed Monsters, Bamako, Into Great Silence, Grbavica, The Decomposition of the Soul, An Unreasonable Man, Our Daily Bread, Opal Dream, Iraq in Fragments, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, and that's just in the last three months.



    And no, I'm not an indieWIRE editor; I just can't put up with all this bullshit.

  • movieenthusiast2000 | March 29, 2007 5:20 AMReply

    Please note: "This is by no means conclusive evidence -- Moore, who left the case on bad terms, had reason to be vindictive"



    My point, and I think it's made as clearly as it could be in my allotment of 600-odd words, is that your film, in its own 81-minute allotment, rather one-sidedly presents the scant available information as to the guilt or innocence of the accused. If your work was ultimately unconcerned with the objective truth of the crime, but rather the miscarriage of justice that followed it--and most anyone without a throbbing agenda will agree that the convictions passed were based on flawed, insufficient evidence--that would be one thing, but when your talking heads as good as profess, with inexplicable confidence, to the innocence of Messrs. Sacco and Vanzetti, a counterpoint seems entirely within the realm of fair play. You, who have spent years with this movie and this case, certainly know its ins and outs, and must certainly know that your film pares a vast field of conflicting evidence, hearsay, etc. into a cogent whole that leans heavily toward the vindication of its subjects; we will never, ever KNOW what happened on that day in South Braintree, though I imagine most of the audience viewing your work will leave steadfastly convinced of S & V's innocence (and really, the lack of historical contextualization provided is stunning--or was my screener missing some references to the Wall Street bombing?)



    The "gray" comment was, I admit, a bit snarky, but what can I say, the whole air of head-held-high-oh-but-we-fought-the-good-fight-didn't-we-ness got to me... For Mr. Zinn I have only the greatest respect, hence my quoting him as an indication of where your film, in my view, would have done better to concentrate its energies (and if there has "never has been a controversy" over the Sinclair letter, it seems particularly odd that Mr. Zinn saw fit to be interviewed and respond to the aforementioned non-controversy).



    I can't imagine anything coming good from any further exchange between us in public forums, but do feel free to slander me up-and-down the internet, as my byline needs all the exposure it can get, and maybe some nice Republican think tank will see fit to bestow me with a massive check! (j/k lol) But really, does a successful film director have to stoop to the shameful role of accusing this good critic?



    Good day,



    Nick Pinkerton

  • biker13 | March 29, 2007 4:54 AMReply

    What a pompous writer, one who is clearly over-confident in his use of the English language. But he's right - reviewers are free to write whatever drivel (right-wing or otherwise) they can think up. But the question is why Indiewire picks this guy's reviews for their site. Of all the objective, understandable reviewers they have to choose from, why Pinkerton? It reminds me of when a writer on their site dismissed 49UP as a boring waste of time. Its just a little much to take from a site that dares call itself

    "Indie" yet gives so much attention to studio and star pet projects run through "indie" companies like Fox Searchlight, Warner Independent, Picturehouse, etc etc ad naseum.

  • movieenthusiast2000 | March 29, 2007 3:26 AMReply

    There is not a single factual inaccuracy or "personal attack" contained anywhere in the text of my review. The quality of the prose is, of course, a matter of personal opinion.



    As for the rest: I would assert that if hard-working indie filmmakers' egos are such delicate houses of cards, they would do well not to expose the fruits of their labor to public debate. And I just flat-out disagree with the assertion that someone who works on an indie somehow deserves reverence beyond what's due to anyone who works a job or devotes time to a hobby. Four years? A lot of people have worked at a lot of stuff a lot longer, and with a lot less public congratulation. Cry me a fucking river. You've got a movie in theatrical release, you're living the dream, and there will always be no shortage of hacks eager to regurgitate your presskit for you. That indiewire serves as a "source of information and encouragement to the community of independent filmmakers" is a tradition that I am proud to associate with, but the implication that the reviews section should be a forum where anyone who has the work ethic to make and get distribution for their movie goes for their congratulatory cookie and pull-quote? I fail to see how this works to anyone's advantage.



    -Nick Pinkerton

  • s1wishman | March 29, 2007 2:51 AMReply

    Indie wire should be embarrassed, not simply for the poor writing and the personal attack on the filmmaker, but because a reviewer of indie films would be so dismissive of a serious and important work like Sacco and Vanzetti without getting his facts straight -- such sloppiness undermines the credibility of the website. As the distributor of independent films, we are eager to be supportive of your website as a source of information and encouragement to the community of independent filmmakers. It's tough enough to raise the money and put in the time and skill to make these kind of films; in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti the filmmaker worked on the film for four years. And then to have some schmuck disparage the work in such an unprofessional and offhand way, would lead one to believe we would be better off without an Indiewire or they should at least hire a fact checker.

  • doc27 | March 29, 2007 2:26 AMReply

    This was a completly stupid and offensive review. Does Indiewire's editorial staff doing any work, or only travel to film festivals?

  • peter miller | March 28, 2007 12:29 PMReply

    I have received many reviews of my films, including the occasional negative one, but never one as ill-informed as Nick Pinkerton