First Run Features // 2004 // 78 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Byun (Retired) // December 4th, 2010
"The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory." -- Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn, the legendary historian and political activist who died in January 2010 at the age of 87, was the kind of egghead the world needs more of -- the rare intellectual who was also a genuine man of the people. Zinn, who grew up in poverty during the Great Depression and served as a bombardier in World War II, came by his Leftist politics honestly -- witnessing firsthand how institutionalized racism and plutocracy put the lie to the notion of America as a "land of opportunity," and how governments profit from wars they promote with nationalistic appeals.
Zinn was best known for his book A People's History of the United States, a book of American history written from the perspective, not of the winners -- wealthy white males -- but of the "losers" -- the exploited, enslaved, abused, and abandoned people of America who, being inconvenient to our self-narrative as "the greatest nation on Earth," tend to get pushed to the margins of history. The central narrative of Zinn's work was that governments and other institutions of power existed to serve the powerful and wealthy, and therefore could not be trusted; that true hope for change lay in ordinary people making small changes that, together, added up to mass movements.
You Can't Be Neutral On a Moving Train is a 2004 documentary (previously reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson) that serves as an introduction and overview of Zinn's remarkable career, from the WWII experiences that shattered his illusions about war and patriotism, to his leadership in the 1960s civil rights movement and his relentless anti-war efforts, from Vietnam through the Iraq War. The documentary is a wonderful way to meet Howard Zinn; as engaging a writer as Zinn can be, it's as a public speaker that his personality really shines. Zinn -- brimming over with gentle, self-effacing humor and a sincerity that often manages to be simultaneously grave and lighthearted -- is miles away from the stereotype of political intellectuals as dour pedants.
The Zinn that emerges from this documentary is someone I wish I'd been fortunate enough to have as a professor and mentor. One would think that, after spending a lifetime speaking truth and working ceaselessly for social justice in the face of monumental, inimical power, he'd be left a cynical, despondent old man. But Zinn never lost hope -- to the end, he believed completely in the ability of ordinary people to effect positive change. His view of the world, one based in realism yet free of cynicism, remains an example and inspiration to anyone with the desire to make the world a kinder, more humane place.
This re-release of You Can't Be Neutral On a Moving Train, packaged with new(ish) material as a "commemorative edition" in the wake of Zinn's passing, adds about an hour of bonus features to the previous DVD release. This extra material consists mostly of extended versions of talks and speeches excerpted in the feature, as well as new interview segments and, most compelling for fans of popular history, extended clips of a conversation with oral historian Studs Terkel.
Also included is an interesting (if a wee bit self-promoting) feature where you can view clips from other First Run Features documentaries that feature Zinn. Rounding out the extras are a pair of PDF files on the disc (not accessible from the DVD menu), "Daniel Ellsberg's A Memory of Howard Zinn" and "Howard Zinn's Recommended Reading List."
While I'd certainly recommend this DVD to anyone unfamiliar with Zinn and curious to know why he's so revered among populists and progressive activists, I have to admit being a little disappointed with this re-release. While it's certainly an improvement over the original DVD, I was hoping for more than just additional Zinn highlights. An update on what Zinn was up to since 2005, or a collection of remembrances, would have made this a true Commemorative Edition.
Still, it's hard to quibble with what's undeniably a solid overview of Zinn's life and accomplishments. If you're feeling the Weltschmerz and looking for some reason to hope, this hefty dose of Howard Zinn can be an enlightening, inspirational tonic for the world-weary soul.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 78 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Extended Interviews
* Photo Gallery