In his new movie, No God No Master that premiered at the Stony Brook Film Festival, writer/director/producer Terry Green spins a fictional story around the historical circumstances of early 20th century America. These times were ripe with change, much of which came through struggle. Many workers faced tyrannical conditions at the hands of the robber baron capitalists, working 60 hours or more per week for low pay or script that was only good at the company store in a sophisticated form of urban indentured slavery.
These conditions were the seeds from which the American labor movement began to sprout. They also led to the emergence of anarchism and other left wing social and intellectual movements that each in their way, questioned the political, social, and economic foundation of the status quo in America. Among this large and diverse group of protestors there was little unanimity on the best way to effect change. Even within groups such as the anarchists there were huge schisms. Emma Goldman preached a peaceful path through organizing and others like Luigi Galeani believed in “propaganda of the deed”, sanctioning a whatever means necessary approach that included bombing and killing innocents.
Interwoven with this tapestry for social change was the U.S. government’s hysterical and repressive reaction including mass arrests and deportations of thousands through the Palmer Red Raids, named for U.S. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer who spearheaded the anti-immigrant witch hunt resulting in the arrest of up to 10,000 immigrants and deportation for many.
To summarize, injustice was rampant and people began to fight back – most through legitimate organizing and protest, but a small minority used violence. The Federal Government’s response was to throw the baby out with the bath water treating all immigrants as a potential threat. The parallels with 21st century politics are unavoidable.
In front of this fascinating political backdrop Green tells a story of mystery and suspense as the “good guys” in search of the terrorists. No God No Master starred David Strathairn (Agent William Flynn), Sam Witwer (his sidekick Eugenio Ravarini), and Ray Wise (Attorney General Parker) with a very able supporting cast (including one of our favorite off-Broadway actors, Sean McNall as a young J. Edgar Hoover). So I was very prepared to sink my teeth into a film that was both entertaining and politically relevant.
But somehow Green didn’t get the recipe quite right and the film was overdone . Like the Mad Magazine back cover cartoon entitled “Who Put the Eight Great Tomatoes in this Itty Bitty Can” he heavy handedly tried to cram in sidebar stories that deserved their own telling.
For example, during his post-screening discussion with the audience, Green pointed out that the film was initially conceived to tell the story of Sacco and Vanzetti, who were disciples of Luigi Galeani but were framed for a murder they did not commit and were posthumously exonerated. However, their role in the film was ill-defined – they had significant screen time but it did not advance the audience’s understanding of the central characters or of the political movements they represented.
Much of Green’s dialogue and staging was corny to the point that I was squirming in my seat. For example, in a scene to demonstrate that Vanzetti was not a murderer he presents a young boy with a cute kitten. No kidding. And then there’s the hackneyed love story between Stathairn’s character and the widowed mother and his teenage boy next door. Instead of using his 94 minutes (and ours) to provide insights into an extremely fascinating era through an exciting drama I was left teased, frustrated, and pondering what might have been. A- for effort C+ for execution.