Even if you know the names Sacco and Vanzetti, there’s a good chance it’s not much more than a factoid. Maybe you remember it was some kind of big court case or there was a huge outcry after they were convicted. Maybe you remember something about exploited Italian-American workers. In 1920, plenty of recent immigrants endured whatever job conditions and pay that burgeoning America would offer them.
Likely, Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent. After a chain of appeals and heightened calls for justice, the State of Massachusetts executed these two men. Far flung riots ensued. Likely, they were condemned to die because they were immigrants, presumed despicable, and more so because they had an attitude. Being activists was bad. Being anarchists caused the powers that be to exercise the overkill needed to send their kind more than a message.
How many films are there that give sympathetic air time to anarchists? The compassion, if not outright sympathy, tipping the film “No God, No Master” helps make for fresh territory in an otherwise familiar, big city, crime drama. The storytelling includes Sacco and Vanzetti, but wisely and effectively, it is more about the tone of the times.
The storytelling also includes a young J. Edgar Hoover, whose overreaching influence was just getting started in that turbulent era. Here, too, it’s about the tone of the times more than its “based on a true story” historical markers.
David Strathairn, a familiar movie face with the right semi-star quality for this role, plays an Irish-American detective with an intimate appreciation of immigrant tensions. He finds himself and his attitude butting up against the power establishment, including John D. Rockefeller, the first American to become billionaire rich.
In the first few minutes of “No God, No Master” a creatively disturbing act of violence sets the stage. Though the film unfolds in the procedural way of so many TV episodes, it reflects a larger impact, one that connects a hundred year old reference to terrorism in America with a stacked institutional deck against “them.”