No God, No Master: Film Review

Strata Productions
The fascinating subject matter gains resonance with its modern-day parallels to the war on terrorism.

Terry Green's historical drama depicts the events leading up to the infamous "Palmer Raids."

A fascinating and infamous episode from America’s past is brought to compelling, if occasionally dramatically clunky life in Terry Green’s (Heavens Fall) historical drama about the events leading up to  the "Palmer Raids" -- in which hundreds of immigrants suspected of leftist ties were deported in the period immediately after World War I -- has an undeniably uncomfortable resonance to the suspension of civil liberties frequently employed in our modern-day war on terrorism. Despite its low-budget limitations, No God, No Master re-creates its period milieu with a vivid realism.

The film’s real-life hero is William J. Flynn (David Strathairn, effortlessly oozing integrity), an agent for the U.S. Bureau of Investigation, the precursor to the FBI, of which he would later become director. The story begins in the summer of 1919, when bomb expert Flynn is assigned by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (Ray Wise) to investigate a series of package bombs sent to such prominent businessmen as John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan as well as such personages as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Flynn’s investigation leads him to the burgeoning labor movement, largely fueled by immigrants rebelling against their oppressive workplace conditions and low pay and whose anger has resulted in a growing advocacy of anarchy. Among the historical figures with whom he either comes into contact or are prominently featured in subplots are Emma GoldmanJohn Hoover (“I prefer J. Edgar,” he bristles, before announcing his intention to deport 10,000 foreigners), anarchist Luigi Galleani and Italian immigrant laborers Sacco and Vanzetti, who would be executed for their supposed involvement in the murder of two men in a Massachusetts payroll robbery.

The director-screenwriter has added some unnecessarily melodramatic touches to the storyline, such as Flynn’s romantic relationship with his single-mother neighbor and his discovering a package bomb in front of his own apartment. He also accents the film’s themes far too baldly, with Flynn constantly lecturing his superiors about the illegality and unconstitutionality of their methods. Wise’s Palmer responds in kind, delivering the sort of self-justifying speech that would be accompanied by a twirling of his mustache if he had one.

But despite its occasional missteps, the film relates its important and sadly too-little-known story with skill and efficiency. Perhaps too much efficiency: at only 94 minutes, the proceedings sometimes feel rushed and narratively confusing, making one wish that the subject had been given a more expansive treatment.

Opens April 11 (Monterey Media)

Production: Strata Productions

Cast: David Strathairn, Ray Wise, Sam Witwer, Alessandro Mario, Edoardo Ballerini

Director-screenwriter: Terry Green

Producers: Tom Desanto, Terry Green

Executive producers: Anna Marie Crovetti, Greg Cozine

Director of photography: Paul Sanchez

Editor: Suzy Elmiger

Production designer: Billy Jett

Costume designer: Shon Leblanc

Composer: Nuno Malo

Rated PG-13, 94 minutes