Two lambs to the slaughter, the Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in 1927 for a crime that they almost certainly did not commit, put to death by the state of Massachusetts alongside the man who actually confessed to murdering a shoe factory manager and armed guard in the course of a 1920 payroll heist.
Not that anyone is ever altogether innocent: As foreigners and draft-dodgers and followers of the militant anarchist (and advocate of terror) Luigi Galleani, Sacco and Vanzetti were ready-made for sacrifice on the altar of America’s post-World War I red scare—blamed for a rash of Boston-area robberies, which Peter Miller’s new documentary pins on a Portuguese gang out of Providence. Their lawyer tried to put capitalism on trial as, in its way, the state did as well: The cops probably faked evidence; the judge discounted testimony, including a jailhouse confession. Boston Brahmins waged a civil war while American Communists jumped into the case to create an international cause célèbre that obsessed and inspired artists as disparate as John Dos Passos, Woody Guthrie, Ben Shahn, and now Miller, who endeared himself to old and neo-old leftists everywhere with his suitably stirring documentary on the history of the Internationale.
Only 81 minutes long, Sacco and Vanzetti is packed with information. Miller mixes archival footage and dramatized readings (Tony Shalhoub as Sacco, John Turturro as Vanzetti) with scenes from a 1971 Italian movie and a wide array of talking heads. Amazingly these include Sacco’s niece, a Vanzetti neighbor, and the daughter of one of the men killed in the robbery. Front and center is people’s historian Howard Zinn who notes that, “I talk about Sacco and Vanzetti all the time.” It scarcely needs be said how much this case has to do with contempt for foreigners, legal injustice, and xenophobic terror.