If Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" leaves you hungry for another movie about someone fighting the government on behalf of truth, justice, and the average American, "Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train" might hit the spot. It's a brisk introductory documentary that makes a useful omnibus profile of the antiwar activist, historian, and author of "A People's History of the United States."
The film clocks in at about 75 minutes, long enough to get the point across and short enough to get you back out on the streets, challenging the system.
The movie whisks us through Zinn's life. We learn what effect Woody Guthrie's "The Ludlow Massacre" had on him, and what early events raised his political consciousness, and how he met his wife, Roslyn. We learn about his participation in the civil rights movement as a history professor at Spelman, the black women's college in Atlanta. We also get testimonials from Marian Wright Edelman, Alice Walker, and Daniel Ellsberg, who impart to us the incalculable effect Zinn has had on honing the political awareness of others. To underscore that particular contribution, the movie shows us a number of gushing 20- and 30-somethings who've trekked far and wide to hear him speak and have him sign their books. Quick time is also devoted to the production of Zinn's recent play, "Marx in Soho." (The centerpiece interview appears to be from the theater's front row.)
If Zinn weren't such a compelling, compassionate figure, and if his dedication to ideas of governmental honesty and human equality weren't so ineffable, it'd be easier to dismiss Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller's film as a commercial for a peacekeeping professor's lifestyle. (Zinn, who's still a professor at Boston University, has a warm, cozy-looking house.)
But the film, which won the audience documentary award at this year's Provincetown Film Festival, remembers to show Zinn at work, particularly the years he spent in the throes of the Vietnam War. There's footage of him talking to the press about negotiations with the North Vietnamese to free three American airmen held hostage. Zinn, who has a slight, rangy build, and a bright, almost cheerful, demeanor, is unique among peace protesters: During World War II he was a bombardier in the Air Force, participating in air raids in Europe. So his stance against war has an empirical advantage. In 1968, on the streets of Hanoi, he was on the other end of a US bombing campaign.
"You Can't Be Neutral" takes its name from the title of Zinn's 1994 autobiography, and the film's narration consists of passages from his books. His words, specifically on the page, are the gentle, temperate writings of a statesman. It's hard to find invective in them. His tone can be mournful, but it can also be optimistic.
The ideas are generous and inclusive rather than divisive: Zinn wants history to be seen and to be experienced from every possible perspective. And he so passionately wants people to use their conviction to change the world that you might feel bad just sitting there watching a movie about it.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Howard Zinn: You Cant Be Neutral on a Moving Train
Directed by: Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller
At: Coolidge Corner
Running time: 75 minutes