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

Dir. Ellis and Mueller
Opens Fri June 18
Cinema 21

If your career as a rockstar is flailing, maybe you should consider becoming a historian. Just look at Howard Zinn, author of numerous tomes (including the wildly popular A People's History of the United States) and subject of the documentary You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train. This biographical film follows his long and glorious rise from the slums of NYC, to his place as leader of progressive thought, and intellectual inspiration for political action. He gets full rockstar treatment here; every second of footage is dedicated to his glorification.

Although it's not much longer than an hour, this film is crammed with footage. It follows Zinn from childhood on, making stops at all the significant historical landmarks in his life--his visit to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, his activism in the early stages of the Civil Rights movement (while he held a teaching position at the primarily African American Spelman College in Atlanta), and his opposition to the current war. It also contains interview footage with friends and colleagues of Zinn's, including Alice Walker and Noam Chomsky.

It's encouraging that liberal politics are clawing their way into ever-more mainstream outlets, if only to counteract the barrage of propaganda we receive from the right. This documentary enlists the participation of pop idols like Matt Damon (who narrates much of the film) and Pearl Jam (on the soundtrack). Considering the film's primary intention of presenting Zinn as an inspiration of hope and the political involvement of this war's generation, a little star-studding can't hurt.

Well-done and well-intentioned, this is a good primer on an influential player in modern politics. Its unerring positivity, though, smacks a bit of propaganda itself. In fact, it flows much like a eulogy--but, considering the current state of the world, who really cares? We either accept the fact that it is a film with a bias, or that Howard Zinn is indeed a perfect and noble human. If you're comfortable with either notion, you'll appreciate this film and its motives.