The trial and tragic fate of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two working-class Italian immigrants in post-World War I Boston who joined the anarchist movement, fueled the Leftist cause of the 1920s. The two were convicted and executed in 1927 as the perps in a Boston-area burglary and double murder that went through innumerable but failed appeals.

For decades after and up to the present, their fate touched the hearts and fired the creativity of liberals. Artists as diverse and dispersed as George Grosz, Upton Sinclair and Joan Baez drew inspiration from their alleged plight. Activists and historians today like Howard Zinn still speak out passionately on behalf of the two immigrants and are among the many talking heads in this documentary.

Sacco and Vanzetti mines a lot of archival footage about the case, including its historic backdrop and confusing details regarding the burglaries and evidential bullets in question. Local spokespeople recount the "urban legend" and others attempt to convey the character of the two men.

But the fundamental problem with this film is that Sacco and Vanzetti themselves remain an enigma. In this pre-sound era and with subjects who did not speak English, the real story is slippery. The pair as presented here aren't guilty or innocent as hell, in spite of voice-overs from Tony Shalhoub as Sacco and John Turturro as Vanzetti.

What the film does convey is something that was obvious over at least the early decades of the 20th century: Boston's WASP establishment didn't exactly crush ethnics, immigrants, others to its bosom. As relates to the case, the doc singles out Boston Brahmins of the time like the Lowell who was Harvard's president and the Thayer who presided as a judge in the case who stacked the deck against an unbiased trial. But Boston's Italian immigrants were hardly the only victims of elitist bigotry: Prejudice also impacted the Irish (and fired up the likes of Joseph Kennedy) and the area's equally huge Jewish immigrant population.
The documentary conveys some basics about Sacco and Vanzetti, both uneducated immigrants to the Boston area who took on humble work but drifted to the anarchist movement. Sacco was a family man, Vanzetti a loner. Like other new arrivals to this country, they were undoubtedly subject to a pervasive paranoia fostered by the Great War and by the fear of Communism that the recent Russian Revolution and its violent aftermath nourished.

Sacco and Vanzetti puts much of its story into an appropriate historic and socioeconomic context, but it falters and betrays a strong pro-Left bias as it stretches to reference today's anti-immigration sentiments with the plight of the two (maybe guilty) protagonists. Filmmaker Peter Miller's previous credits, including films about the Communist anthem, the Spanish Civil War and the Black Panthers, suggest his tilt to the Left. But there is a difference between prejudice against others (possibly instinctive and timeless) and today's outrage (maybe logical?) at illegal immigration gone amok.

In any case, Sacco and Vanzetti is a knee-jerk take that may touch many hearts but does not feed or satisfy the mind. For instance, what about reports--not addressed in this doc--that Upton Sinclair, in doing research about the Sacco and Vanzetti case, learned that the duo actually were guilty?