HOWARD ZINN: YOU CAN’T BE NEUTRAL ON A MOVING TRAIN is a robust telling of the historian’s life and times that does the spirit of the man credit. First Run Feature has re-released the 2004 documentary with a plethora of bonus features, and were smart enough to realize that the only thing better than this documentary about Zinn is a bonus hour or so of more Zinn.
Zinn came to pop culture fame later in life than his fellow 60s radicals. Though at the forefront of both the civil rights and anti-war movements, the spotlight shown brighter on comrades such as Tom Hayden, Daniel Ellsberg, and Daniel Berrigan. It was a mention of his seminal book “A People’s History of the United States”, in the film, GOOD WILL HUNTING, co-written by his fan Matt Damon, that put Zinn in the public eye in a way that he hadn’t been before. It marked a spike in sales of that book, and a chance for him to bask in the approbation of a new generation of admirers.
Zinn himself in a series of interviews tells his life story. Born into poverty in New York City, Zinn came to his political consciousness in a very direct fashion. Finding himself at a union rally out of curiosity as a kid, he was struck by a policeman’s baton. The effect shifted his paradigm and settled once and for all in his mind that the police were neutral in matters of union organization, and that, by extension, neither was the government. It instilled in him a lifelong belief in the necessity of civil disobedience and that with that strategy, the people could take control of their government. It was just one of a series of breathtaking series of coincidences, or perhaps synchronicity, that put Zinn on his path. Finding a book on the street that led to his love of reading and devouring the complete works of Dickens, absorbing the underlying social commentary that resonated with the poor kid whose parents worked hard and didn’t achieve the American Dream promised to all those who worked that hard. Volunteering for service in World War II when his job in a shipyard provided him a deferment. Going to college on the G.I. Bill and finding nothing in his textbooks, even as a graduate student, about salient incidents of union organizing and subsequent suppression by the government. Refusing to consider a teaching job in the south because of its segregation policies, only to become chair of the history department at Spellman and, while there, spurring his students, and himself, to take part in changing the status quo to the horror of the conservative university administrators who favored a careful, sedate approach. Civil Rights activism, which brought him to the attention of both Martin Luther King Jr. and the FBI, led to protesting the Vietnam War and a lifetime spent dedicated to the struggle of giving voice to the people.
Damon, appropriately, reads the excerpts of Zinn’s writings that illustrate each era of his life. The writing holds up. It’s cogent, concise, and appeals to the logic and sense of fair-play in the reader, not the baser instinct of vengeance against the oppressor. There is Zinn’s unswerving optimism that human beings collectively can seize control of their destiny from the halls of power, and that the truth can never be suppressed for long. Friends, former students, fellow activists all weigh in, with Alice Walker speaking quietly of Zinn’s remarkable capacity for moral outrage. It explains the drive of the man. He himself is anything but strident in the film, whether in the present or in clips of his life in the public eye. The shock of hair that goes from black to gray, the eyes that become more piercing as the hair goes gray, the calm, centered manner in both speaking and writing, with just a dusting of sharp wit, that is the product of a deeply help sense of conviction of the rightness of his cause. He also gave real-world object lessons, as when he took on Boston University President John Silber. Even after 30 years, he has a puckish sparkle in his eye rather than bitterness when recalling his grievances against the man and the actions he took to right what he considered the wrongs done to the workers at the school, actions that could very well have ended his academic career.
What also comes across is the same passionate love for his country that prompted him to sing without irony “America the Beautiful” during a visit to North Vietnam during the war. and looked at the country he loved with eyes that refused to believe what those in power wanted him to see, instead seeing what America promised and, with a capacity for moral outrage that would not be quelled, demanded that America deliver.
Filmmakers Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller have crafted a spare but dazzling portrait of a unique man and soulful progressive. In keeping with their subject, the history of his life and times is highlighted with perfectly selected moments of his past that speak to both his personal and political development. It leaves the viewer with the sense that they have gotten to know more about the man than just his politics, and with an overwhelming curiosity to read every word he ever wrote.
The DVD release of HOWARD ZINN: YOU CAN’T BE NEUTRAL ON A MOVING TRAIN includes clips of him in other films from First Run. In THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA, he talks about going to the movies with Daniel Ellsberg the night before the Pentagon Papers were published. In SACCO AND VANZETTI, it‘s the subtext of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and how those anarchists inspired him. In THE CAMDEN 28 about a group on trial for burning records in a draft office in 1971, it’s the need for civil disobedience. In ONE BRIGHT AND SHINING MOMENT, about George McGovern’s grassroots run for the White House in 1972, it’s relating the killing of students by the National Guard at Kent State in 1930 with the murders of union organizers by police in the 1920s and 30s, and how the government used lies about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident to get involved in the Vietnam War. Other extras include excerpts from interviews in speeches, the most resonant of which is Zinn parsing the implications of changing the name of Armistice Day into Veteran’s Day with a graceful erudition that does nothing to undermine the way it changed the holiday from one of hope for peace into a celebration of the martial. Best of all, in the CD-ROM feature, there is Zinn’s recommended reading list and an eloquent tribute to Zinn by Ellsberg.