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.]