Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Howard Zinn during World War II
Photo: First Run Features

HOWARD ZINN: YOU CAN'T BE NEUTRAL ON A MOVNG TRAIN
Directed & Produced by: Deb Ellis & Denis Mueller.
Director of Photography: Michael Burke, et al.
Edited by: Cyndi Moran.
Music by: Billy Bragg, Woody Guthrie & Eddie Vedder.
Released by: First Run Features.
Country of Origin: USA. 78 min. Not Rated.
Narrated by: Matt Damon.

Howard Zinn, an impressive figure of the left, is best known for A Peopleís History of the United States. American history told from the point of view of the disenfranchised, it has sold a million copies worldwide since its publication in 1980. In Howard Zinn: You Canít Be Neutral on a Moving Train, the filmmakers Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller trace the historianís life from his birth through his response to current political events.

Zinn was born into a poor family in a New York City slum. During the 1930s, he worked in the shipyards where he organized laborers in the fight for better conditions. He recalls - in one of his many interviews - the first beating he took at the hands of police, which prompted his understanding that police arenít neutral in concerns of state. In the 1940s, he met his wife, enlisted in the Air Force, and was sent to Europe as a World War II bombardier. He was ordered, late in the war, to drop the U.S.ís first batch of napalm on a French village where the German occupiers had all but surrendered. This led to Zinnís unwavering pacifism.

After studying history at Columbia, Zinn began his teaching career with the notion that official history didnít welcome all voices equally. He taught at Spelman, a college for black women in Atlanta, and took a leading role in the early civil rights movement. He protested the Vietnam War and organized the first prisoner exchanges with the North Vietnamese.

Predominantly a series of interviews with friends and former colleagues, the film is an engaging though uncritical survey of Zinnís life. Alice Walker, one of his Spelman students, rounds out the long list of testimonials, as do Noam Chomsky, MIT linguist and leftist luminary, and Dan Berrigan, the activist poet and priest who worked with Zinn on the prisoner exchange.

In a highlight, Zinn tells a group of high school students, ďIf you study history, what you learn is that wars are always accompanied by lies. Wars are always accompanied by deceptions. Wars are always accompanied by a guy going, ĎWeíre going to fight for democracy. Weíre going to war to fight for freedom.íĒ

As the film moves toward closure, however, its energy begins to lag. We realize that none of Zinn's opponents have rounded out the list of testimonials. Even harsh or mild criticism would have made the praise more objective, grounding us in the notion that this gadfly has indeed had an effect other than just as friend and inspiration. Joel Whitney, screenwriter/poet, teaches at Fordham University
July 23, 2004

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