Review: Howard Zinn You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train DVD

Howard Zinn DVD boxSTUDIO: First Run | DIRECTOR: Deb Ellis and Denise Mueller
RELEASE DATE: 9/21/10 | PRICE: DVD $24.95
BONUSES: extra footage, speeches, book excerpts, Zinn’s reading list
SPECS: NR | 78 min. | Documentary | 1.33:1 fullscreen | stereo | English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train offers a complete image of the university professor, anti-war and pro-labor political activist, historian and writer who championed the poor and powerless for decades and came to symbolize American liberal philosophy.

The independent film looks at the man through videos of his speeches, historical stock footage and excerpts from his writings as voiced by Matt Damon (The Informant). Howard Zinn died in January 2010 at the age of 87, after the movie was completed.

Documentaries about single people often seem to be about their actions, their legacies and their historical importance. But this film also succeeds in piercing right into the heart of its subject, revealing not only his ideals and his achievements, but giving us a chance to get to know Zinn personally. Perhaps this is because he was still living when the film was made, which gave the producers a chance to interview him extensively, but it is also because the days of Zinn’s controversial activism have passed, allowing us to see him as the “elder statesman” rather than as a political figure.

Indeed, this is not a political movie, in the sense that a campaign ad is political. The documentary is intimate, and because of that, it does not feature the commentary of friends and colleagues as centrally as the speeches, writings and interviews given by Zinn himself.

It was made with a spare budget, with less flair and style than most History Channel features. At times, the trotting out of too many similar speeches by Zinn make the film seem repetitive, especially in its second half.

Oddly, the audio is quite poor during some of Zinn’s speeches, although the inclusion of songs that inspired him or were inspired by him elevates the film’s appeal a little. It is sure to interest students of American history and those who have read his works, especially considering the subject’s recent passing.

Leading the special features on the DVD is a collection of Zinn’s speeches, which, again, give more insight into the man himself than any documentary ever could.


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About Alex

Alex Kikuchi loves movies of every size and variety and has fancied himself a film critic ever since Mystery Science Theater made it look so easy when he was a kid in the 1990s.