I enjoy left-wing documentaries as much as the next lefty, but I'm still not convinced radical historian Howard Zinn is the ideal subject for this kind of film. After all, the reason why Zinn's masterpiece, A People's History of the United States, is still so—excuse the term—revolutionary is because it rejects the standard “great men” theory of history. Instead of focusing on big name white males, Zinn's bestselling book gives marginalized minorities a platform to tell the history of our country from their own perspectives.
As such, A People's History is an openly biased account of the United States that supplies curious readers with the dark half of the American historical equation, one that's habitually ignored in mainstream histories. In other words, Zinn cares less about Christopher Columbus than about the Arawak Indians Columbus abused and enslaved. Instead of regurgitating the same old familiar heroic biographies of Founding Fathers, presidents, inventors and entrepreneurs, Zinn dwells on the lives of the disenfranchised—the workers, women, immigrants and racial minorities who fought, and in many cases died, for the freedoms not initially granted to everyone by our Constitution.
So it's a bit jarring to see this kind of hagiography about a heroic white guy who's made a career out of rejecting this kind of hagiography about other heroic white guys. Despite this irony, I have to admit that Zinn has certainly led an impressive and admirable life, one that's combined radical scholarship with activism at every phase of his adult existence.
Raised in a painfully poor working class family in a Brooklyn slum, Zinn first became involved with the labor movement as a teenage dock worker. Eager to fight the curse of fascism, he later enrolled in the Air Force during World War II. As a bomber he was one of the first American soldiers to drop napalm—then a new invention—on civilian populations in Western Europe, an experience that later plagued him with guilt and led to his embrace of a largely pacifistic worldview.
A latecomer to academia, Zinn struggled his way through Columbia University, acquiring a Ph.D. in history in the early '50s before accepting a teaching post at Spelman College, an all-black university in Atlanta. At Spelman, Zinn immediately began organizing students to agitate for civil rights, and he was soon booted out of the college for his activism. Zinn then took a position at Boston College where he became one of the leaders of the protest movement against the Vietnam War.
You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train is narrated by Matt Damon, who, with his unabashed commercial for A People's History in his hit Hollywood film Good Will Hunting, has done more than anyone to promote Zinn's masterpiece. (Back in the late '90s, Damon and his buddy Ben Affleck planned to make an ambitious 12-hour TV series based on the book. The project has been shelved for years.)
I enjoyed You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train even though it isn't an inventive film by any stretch of the imagination. It's not as amusingly bombastic as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 or as structurally creative as Manufacturing Consent, the cinematic biography of Zinn's fellow aged lefty, Noam Chomsky. You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train has a plain Jane, made-for-TV quality. It also doesn't discuss Zinn's ideas in any great depth.
Yet the documentary is effective in delivering the bare bones basics of Zinn's radical worldview. As the good professor says early on in the film, historical knowledge beyond the rose-tinted niceties of our official national mythology is indispensable because if you don't know the dark side of your own nation's history, you might as well have been born yesterday. People who don't understand their own country's past will always be too trusting, too eager to believe anything their leaders tell them. This, of course, makes them ideal dupes.
It would be wonderful—especially at this frightening juncture in our national story—if this message could reach a wide audience of potential voters before Nov. 2. Unfortunately, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train is probably not a good vehicle to spread this gospel. Without Moore's talent for snarky infotainment, the producers of this documentary probably won't find many people to preach to who aren't already singing their hearts out in the left-wing choir.