Howard Zinn is the friendly face of the American left. Not as matter-of-factly dogmatic as Noam Chomsky, not as nasty as Alexander Cockburn nor as self serving as Michael Moore. While he is certainly an activist in the true sense he also has a very likable personality that belies vindictivness and speaks to reason.
As a professor and author he is best known for 'The People's History of the United States', which has been one of the most widely read American history books over the past couple of decades. True to its title it is known primarily for presenting a view of American history from the people, the workers and the minorities rather than from the white males that are usually the focus of history.
The documentary Howard Zinn: You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train by Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller is a good introduction to the man, his times and his particular ideas about history as it relates to his life.
Born in a working class neighborhood of New York he went on to serve in World War Two as a bomber pilot. Soon after the war he began to realize that for all the good the war brought the world it also had a dark side that wasn't reported much.
Within a decade he was teaching at Spelman College an all black school in Atlanta that got caught up in the civil rights movement. Due to his activism there he was dismissed from the school. Then came the Vietnam War, which Zinn protested rather vociferously against during his years at Boston University. He also went on a peace mission with activist Tom Hadyn and Father Dan Berrigan to North Vietnam to bring back a pilot who had gone down in that region.
Ellis and Mueller have a great appreciation for Zinn and the film plays very reverential toward him. They use interviews with Zinn - who comes across as charismatic and intelligent - interspersed with interviews with his colleagues, former students (Alice Walker) and friends as well as old photos and a good amount of footage from his activists days in the 1960's. Some narration is provided by Matt Damon; who reads from some of Zinn's books.
There is very little personal information other than a short tale of how he met his wife Roslyn, and there is no view from anyone who opposes his ideas but that's okay because the film is set up not to provoke or explore but rather to introduce the man. For this reason some may find it lacking - especially if they already know what Zinn is all about. Still it is more than worth a look.
Shot on video the film is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio and looks very good. There is a good amount of vintage film footage spliced in, which looks its age but this being a documentary it adds rather than detracts from the presentation.
The DVD is presented in mono but sounds fine. The audio consists of interviews, voice over and some music by Billy Bragg and Woody Guthrie. Closing credits by Pearl Jam. Some of the sound on the archival footage is not clear.
The extras are right in line with the documentary. First is a eight minute excerpted interview cut from the original film titled Human Nature and Aggression. In it Zinn talks about how many people tend to blame aggression on human nature, rather than on the governments of the world who carry out the aggression. Next is A Speech at the Veterans for Peace convention in 2004 that lasts over 15 minutes and is excellent. Zinn, himself a Veteran, has a lot to say about the futility of war. Last major extra is an audio only speech at 1971 Boston Common that he gave during the Vietnam War. This speech is distinguishable by the more recent one because Zinn is much more aggressive. The last few things on the DVD are biographies of the filmmakers and a few First Run Feature trailers. There is also DVD-ROM material including the full text of his Boston Common speech and his recommended reading list.
Howard Zinn: You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train is an very good documentary about one of the most respected historians and activists in America today. The DVD is recommended for anyone who likes Zinn and has enjoyed his writings. Anyone Left of center will also appreciate it. Anyone Right of center will most likely not enjoy it much but should note it is not as dogmatic as either Michael Moore's documentaries or the recent ones featuring Noam Chomsky.