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HOWARD ZINN: YOU CAN’T BE NEUTRAL ON A MOVING TRAIN (director: Deb Ellis/Denis Mueller; cinematographer: Judy Hoffman; editor: Deb Ellis; music: Richard Martinez; cast: Matt Damon (Narrator), Howard Zinn; Runtime: 78; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Deb Ellis/Denis Mueller; First Run Features; 2004)
“A flattering but soft documentary about Howard Zinn.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A flattering but soft documentary about Howard Zinn, activist, history professor and author of the 1980 million-copy-bestseller “A Peoples History of the United States.” You will probably like it only according to your point of view. The affable and mild-mannered Zinn makes the point that it’s not possible to be neutral about historical events. In 1997, Zinn wrote: “It is the great challenge of our time: how to achieve justice — with struggle, but without war.” The charismatic intellectual, for over 40 years in academia while posing as a working-class hero, brings out in the open the dark side of the American experience. The straightforward documentary, never going beyond surface coverage, is co-directed by Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller, whose title is derived from Zinn’s recent autobiography. The film will give a truncated look at Zinn’s biography and political beliefs, and serves as a good introduction for new recruits and a further inspiration to the already converted. It shows Zinn taking an active stand for his views despite facing risks, but fails to question his ability to reach the working-class audience he purports to speak for. This is mostly a love-in of Zinn’s fellow activist and his worshiping followers, and shows Zinn’s well-educated middle-class followers patting themselves on the back for understanding the importance of his message. The filmmakers never traveled further with their story than the messenger carrying the message on his speech-making stumps, and never took a look at how dissenters felt or about how anyone else but his followers felt about his ideas and values.

The now 81-year-old Zinn, one of four sons of a Jewish immigrant working-class family, traces his childhood of living in poverty in a NYC slum, attending his first Communist protest rally in Manhattan and having a cop bash him on the head for no just reason, his first job as a teenager in a shipyard and soon becoming a union organizer, and quickly fills us in on how he met his future wife. Joining the Air Force during WWII, he relates how at the end of the war his squadron flew on a mission to bomb a French village with napalm, the first time it was used, even though there was no apparent danger from the German troops surrounding the city who were only waiting for the war to end. This got him to think about ”the total goodness of a good war.” After receiving his doctorate from Columbia, Zinn’s hired by a women’s black college in Atlanta, Spelman, and gets involved with civil rights demonstration that were escalating in the early 1960s and also becomes an adviser to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Fired because of his activities, he goes on to Boston University in 1964, and gets involved with the antiwar movement. At a Boston mass rally against the war in Vietnam, he is the featured speaker and pays the penalty by having his tenure denied. During the Tet offensive, he’s invited by the Vietcong to Hanoi, with other peace activists such as Tom Hayden and Daniel Berrigan, to bring home three released pilot P.O.W.s as a gesture of their good will.

Despite the film’s flaws and inability to be probing, it does make its case for Zinn’s teaching of nonviolent civil disobedience and that he’s so successful because he has hit the pop-culture scene due to his endearing personality. It’s narrated with love by Matt Damon, who grew up as Zinn’s Cambridge neighbor.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”