When it comes to being taught history, says Howard Zinn in a new documentary about his life, "I discovered in graduate school you get the same point of view you get in elementary school, only with footnotes."
Zinn, among this country's best-known political activists and likely its best-selling politically progressive historian, has made it his mission to right that educational wrong. But while Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train is a passable sketch of a remarkable life, more than anything it's hagiography. Sans footnotes.
Filmmakers Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller are patently enamored of the author of the million-selling A People's History of the United States, which admirably sought to illuminate 500 years of common people's "hidden resistance" to society's power elite -- not (in Henry Kissinger's phrase) "the memory of states," but the chronicles of communities. Yet with its vintage film footage and tasteful musical score, You Can't Be Neutral is disappointingly standardized life-of stuff, starting with Zinn's tenement childhood, his awakening to international class consciousness, and his years as a shipyard worker, union organizer and World War II bombardier (who dropped early napalm on occupied France).
Zinn's life has certainly been more colorful than most (perhaps especially among historians). After tuning into labor history via Woody Guthrie's "The Ludlow Massacre," he was among the first whites to teach at Atlanta's historically black Spelman College -- where his civil-rights-era activism got him canned. He wrote a prescient book-length critique of the Vietnam War (Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal) and joined a contingent of academic peaceniks who escorted the first American POWs released by North Vietnam (only to get shouldered aside by the U.S. ambassador).
With voice-overed excerpts from books including The New Abolitionists, and laudatory though not especially insightful talking-head visits with usual suspects such as Noam Chomsky, Tom Hayden and Daniel Berrigan, the film dutifully emphasizes the importance of knowing history -- and of historians weighing in on current issues. It also reminds us that "to be neutral is to collaborate with whatever is going on," and of democracy's need for civil disobedience.
The wiry, silver-maned Zinn, who at 82 continues to speak and write on peace and social justice issues, cuts a likable if predictably earnest figure. But critics who perhaps misleadingly call his writings one-sided would rightly find fault with the film, which acknowledges critiques of Zinn only as they are paraphrased by Zinn himself. Self-congratulatory in tone, and feeling long even at 77 minutes, You Can't Be Neutral touches on lots of interesting ideas but doesn't dig deeply enough into them to inspire the ardor both its subject and filmmakers obviously feel.