Monday, May 5, 2014

No God, No Master

NO GOD, NO MASTER        C             
USA  (94 mi)  2012  d:  Terry Green              Official site

This is a period piece movie from the early 1920’s where the merging storylines of history seem like a compelling subject for modern audiences, as the nation was coming to grips with mail bombs landing on the doorstep of Standard Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and banker J.P. Morgan, also other prominent politicians, businessmen, and law enforcement officials in the summer of 1919.  In an era that existed before the formation of the FBI, Bureau of Investigation Agent William Flynn, played by the inimitable David Strathairn, is the department’s best bomb expert, where he’s assigned the task to sort out what lies behind these malicious attacks.  Inspired by true events, one would think the parallels to the contemporary War on Terrorism might be appropriate, as the film documents the earliest acts of terrorism to ever take place on American soil.  Shot entirely on the streets of Milwaukee, the film has an authentic feel, with Chicago theater well represented by Steppenwolf Theatre cast member Mariann Mayberry as firebrand anarchist publisher Emma Goldman, the founder of Mother Earth magazine, home to radical activists and literary free thinkers, while Remy Bumppo Theatre member David Darlow plays the imperial John D. Rockefeller, perhaps the richest man in America at the time, and one of the targets of the mail bombs.  While well-intentioned, the director is simply overwhelmed by the complexity of the intersecting storylines, which are presented in a traditional, straightforward manner, lacking any sense of originality, depth, or cinematic artistry, giving it the feel of a fairly conventional made-for TV movie.  Unfortunately, modern era audiences would do well to revisit this period in American history, though this film, and Clint Eastwood’s recent portrait of J. Edgar (2011), are not the places to start.  A much better film would be the well-researched documentary film Sacco and Vanzetti (2006) made by longtime Ken Burns collaborator Peter Miller, which does an excellent job exploring the witch hunt hysteria of rampant racism and xenophobia of the First Red Scare of 1919-20.

Besides a police procedural following the detective work of Flynn and his partner Ravarini (Sam Witwer), where they answer to the Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, Ray Wise (famous for being the father of Laura Palmer in the early 90’s TV show Twin Peaks), his right-hand man is J. Edgar Hoover (Sean McNall), who is compiling a list of names from radical leftist, anarchist, and immigrant groups who are considered a threat to the nation’s security, as they are alleged to belong to groups that advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government.  Accordingly, they are targeting labor activists and anarchists who are seen as agitators of social unrest.  While it’s often confusing to tell the difference between supporters of the early labor movement, who are fighting for a decent wage and safer working conditions, and anarchists or communists who oppose the prevailing order hoping to inspire a revolution, following the example of the Russian Revolution of 1917, many ordinary workers are caught in the crossfire, where the Justice Department charges Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, basically two lifelong laborers, with the murder of payroll clerks, where they are both convicted during the frenzy of anti-immigrant fervor, where the two were executed largely for refusing to disavow their political beliefs.  While this is going on, Flynn is also caught up in a romantic relationship with the single mother living across the hall, the widow of his former partner who was killed by an explosive devise, and her angry son who is sneaking out of the house and identifying with the violent rhetoric of the anarchists.  Even as Flynn tracks down the bomb factory and identifies the source of the mail bombs, Palmer is more interested in his ambitious plan to deport thousands of immigrants, many of whom are guilty of nothing more than being an immigrant, yet they are used as pawns in the frustrated efforts of U.S. government officials to eradicate terrorism from within their ranks. 

The American origins of the film title come from an anarchist and labor slogan that first appeared at the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, where pamphlets and banners held aloft by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) contained this message, though it originated earlier with Nietzsche’s 1886 book, Beyond Good and Evil, and was later printed by Margaret Sanger in a feminist pamphlet a few years later promoting contraception, insisting that women are masters of their own bodies.  Given short shrift here is the Women's suffrage in the United States, where many women were part of the anarchist movement, not just Emma Goldman, as advocating for the right to vote was a radical social change requiring protests and demonstrations, where women were subject to arrests and many were jailed in their quest to pass the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.  Instead the film pits immigrant groups one against the other, mostly Italians and the Irish, where the Irish have the jobs and the political power that the Italians came to American searching for.  Early in 1920, the Justice Department launches a series of raids against immigrants and labor organizations, known as the Palmer Raids, where over 3000 are arrested and subject to deportation, where the arrests are without search warrants and the detention stations are in overcrowded, unsanitary facilities.  In their zeal to create a public image of decisive action, the agents arrest everyone attending organization meeting halls, including visitors and even American citizens, and while they claimed to take possession of several bombs, in fact the sum total of all the raids netted four ordinary pistols.  Eventually a District Court Judge orders the arrests illegal and unconstitutional, but not until after they stir the nation into a frenzy of anti-immigrant sentiment.  It is under this historical backdrop that the movie unravels, where the failings of this film are much like Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013), where storylines unravel through a backdrop of history, both feeling shortchanged, coming off as one-dimensional, where the director ends up thoroughly manipulating the audience with a series of contrived events, using a deeply swelling musical score to garner sympathy for the ugly injustice of it all.  The brief Black and White opening that resembles archival footage stands apart from the rest of the film, never really making a connection, yet the stark reality sets a tone that quickly gets lost in the build-up of orchestrated outrage.   

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