Streaming Choices: Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (2004)


In Streaming Choices, I take a quick glance at the world of cinema available on Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

Rating: Two and a half stars (out of five)

Leftwing writer, professor, and activist Howard Zinn led an eventful, opinionated life.  He grew up in poverty and never had a book in his house until he found a frayed paperback on the street.  He ran bomber missions in World War II.  He led a group of his students at black college at numerous civil rights protests.  He and a few other activists negotiated with the North Vietnamese to release American pilots when the U.S. government wouldn’t.  And that’s the problem with Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.  It’s all recounting the man’s activities, one after the other, without truly getting to the heart of what they mean, or where they come from.

A few times, Zinn gets a bit introspective about his writings and activism, but these moments are too rare.  Directors Deb Ellis and Dennis Mueller don’t prod him to continue in these times, rather content to fall into hero worship and a pattern of “This happened, then this happened, then this.”  Sometimes Zinn will remark that seeing something (poverty where he grew up, his first activism rally where he was hit by a nightstick, his misgivings about bombing a French town to punish German soldiers after WWII was effectively won) that “affected [him] greatly,” but the film stops there.  How did it affect him?  What specific things pushed him to write about them?  What about the looks on peoples’ faces when police brutality occurs?  But no, it’s just a vague recollection and onto the next bullet point.

Ellis and Mueller fail to negotiate the downsides of activism, too.  They get Zinn to mention how every war is supposed to be the last one, and how it’s like a drug for countries.  But if activism is this enlightened, higher calling to upset people into rethinking their place in the world and changing their behaviors, hasn’t Zinn’s anti-war rhetoric failed on some level?  War still exists, and the latest failed war, Iraq, was in its early days as this documentary was shot.  They don’t ask him about how he’s shifted tactics to convince more people on the need for peace.  It’s all about the so-called world changing, in-your-face attitudes of ’60s-style activism, with no mention of how that movement got jaded and petered out.  Zinn doesn’t say anything about disillusionment with his cause, or the possible boomerang effect of being in everyone’s face can have, but I suspect that’s because he wasn’t asked about it.

Luckily, it’s not entirely dreary.  Zinn himself was a magnetic man (he died in 2010), and one I would like to learn more about from a less hero-worshipping angle (full disclosure: I’ve never read anything by him).  But he was an engaging speaker, charming, and you can tell he genuinely cared about people, the world, and the United States.  He thought they can be better, and that’s an admirable, hopeful quality people respond to.

Unfortunately, this activity checklist of a film fails his messages.  Documentaries do not necessarily need a dramatic structure (“This happens, therefore this happens, but this happens, therefore this happens,” and so on), but they shouldn’t be blander than history books, either.  Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train lacks emotional details about why these issues matter to society, and historical details about each event in Zinn’s life.  At an hour and 17 minutes, the film has plenty of room to explore more.  But it always chooses the easy route of, “Look at this Great Man,” when the Great Man probably would have been plenty willing to discuss the less-than-great parts of his life.

Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train is currently available on Netflix Instant.

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