Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews Robin Clifford 
Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train
Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews Laura Clifford 
Educator/writer/philosopher Howard Zinn has proved to be a man of true conviction. A B-17 bombardier during World War 2 involved in the first use of napalm in the destruction of a French village, he went on to get his PhD; procured a teaching position at the prestigious Spelman College, the black women’s school in Atlanta; become a leading activist in the Civil Rights movement; an outspoken opponent to the Vietnam War; and authored the revisionist, working man’s “A People’s History of the United States.” Filmmakers Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller bring the life of this remarkable man to the screen with “Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.”

The life and times of Howard Zinn is an eye-opening look into a man of true conviction who rose from an environment of abject poverty to gain an education and join the labor movement in the 30’s. His time as a bombardier during the Second World War and the senseless napalm bombing of the French town of Royan by 1200 B-17 heavy bombers began his awareness of how bad even a “good” war could be.

“Howard Zinn” chronicles this true humanitarian’s life and works as he took on the task of civil rights advisor for the students at Spelman. This white liberal educator proved to be too far to the left for even a black college and he came under the watchful eye of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI for his Civil Rights activism. He took a teaching position at Boston University in the 60’s and led students in protests against the war in Vietnam. Zinn was one of the activists, along with Father Daniel Berrigan, who journeyed to Hanoi to free three US flyers from their North Vietnamese captors and experience, first hand, the effect of American bombing.

Since the Vietnam War, Zinn has dedicated himself to teaching and enlightenment against the futility of war and his ongoing battle against man’s inhumanity to man. He broke new ground, and sold over a million copies, with his “A People’s History of the United States,” a work that shows our country’s story through the eyes of the faceless and disenfranchised in our society. Zinn is an outspoken opponent to the current Iraq War and the American administration’s execution of it. The activist’s attitude to the tragedy of 9/11/2001 is that it should not spawn war but, instead, push for health, food, safety and freedom.

“Howard Zinn: You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train” has a hero worship quality to it as documakers Ellis and Mueller give their subject near-saint status. (Not to say that they are wrong.) Zinn’s actions and activism are chronicled and discussed by the man and a bevy of notable political activists. The author/educator provides copious interview material from his early civil rights and Vietnam protest days right up to his current senior liberal statesman role. The documakers pack their interviews with the thoughts, opinions and historical perspective of such notables as Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, Tom Hayden, Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman. This collection of educated, liberal minds provides an historical perspective and insights into the man, Howard Zinn.

“Howard Zinn” does not just concentrate on the man and his activism. It also shows him as a dedicated husband and partner with his wife, Roz, who admits to being the first editor for all of his written works and biggest supporter.

This is a fine biography about a truly good, brave and honest man but it is also an incredibly detailed history lesson - like Zinn’s own “A History…” - that shows things from a different point of view. I give it a B+. 

An author who read his first book when he literally found one on the street.  An anti-war activist who pilotted bombers during World War II.  A civil rights organizer who was fired from his teaching post at Spellman, a black college in Atlanta.  A man who rewrote American history from the viewpoint of the native American Indians, Black slaves and immigrants who built a nation.  Producer/directors Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller have crafted a loving portrait of a remarkable man in "Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train."

It's 1971 and Howard Zinn is shown engaging in one of his most regular pursuits - protesting on the Boston Common.  Zinn's philosophy is that he begins with the assumption that everything is always upside down, and the documentary makers stay that course as they present the life of a man who has worked to to overturn injustices with unflagging energy and courage.

After describing his roots in poor but loving immigrant parents in New York City and the struggles of beginning his own family with love-of-his-life Roz, Zinn notes the pivotal moment of his youth - hearing Woody Guthrie's song about the Ludlow Massacre.  Realizing that this shameful event had never been in any of his history books, Zinn became determined to teach a new kind of history and take on changing the world in parallel.

Ellis and Mueller chart Zinn's involvement in civil rights, protesting the Vietnam War, criticizing the F.B.I., unionizing and, perhaps most of all, education, with archival footage and interviews with his many friends and colleagues including Father Dan Berrigan, Alice Walker, Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame and M.I.T. professor Noam Chomsky. The man that emerges is a champion of human rights with an impish sense of humor (listen to him delight in how his favorite Harvard Square coffee shop is really a disguised Dunkin Donuts or the glee with which he recounts his days of being a thorn in Boston University president John Silber's side).  Zinn's marriage to Roz, although not dwelt upon (she's never interviewed), is obviously a cherished one and a foundation which has enabled Zinn's many accomplishments.  The filmmakers are able to get this across with little more than a few well chosen still photographs and some recent video material.

Zinn's own voice is joined by his friend Matt Damon (Will Hunting recommended Zinn's "A People's History of the United States to Robin William's psychiatrist), who narrates passages from Zinn's many books to historical footage.  Composer Richard Martinez ("The Daytrippers") provides subtle music which rounds out the sound without distracting from the story.

"Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train" is an exceptionally thorough history of a man effecting change throughout turbulent times.  Ellis and Mueller's terrific film turns the spotlight on a worthy subject and does him justice.


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