Bright Lights Film Journal

A Succession of Presents: Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train

Pay attention to that man behind the curtain

In Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, filmmakers Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller buck the current trend of showy documentaries, adopting instead a classic, unassuming style perfectly suited to their subject. Zinn may be one of the few famous Americans alive who’s better known for his work than his face. Now in his eighties, the author of the million-seller People’s History of the United States draws capacity crowds at his public appearances. Zinn, who bears a passing resemblance to Gregory Peck, appears unfazed by his increasing popularity. Matt Damon narrates (he’s Zinn’s neighbor in Massachusetts and an ardent fan — Good Will Hunting includes a reference to Zinn), mostly excerpts from Zinn’s autobiography, with which the film shares its title. In a depiction otherwise straightforward and plain, Damon adds a patina of glamour.

Zinn was raised in Brooklyn in the 1920s. His family struggled despite his parents’ full-time jobs. Working in the shipyards, Zinn was exempted from military service but chose to enlist in the air force. Serving in Europe in World War II (right), he experienced first-hand the lethally absurd aspects of even that “good” war. His was among the first units to use napalm, and he was haunted by the unseen but vividly imaginable effects of the jellied gasoline. He returned to the States, earning a doctorate at Columbia on the GI bill. His first faculty appointment was to the history department at Spelman College in Atlanta in 1956.

Possessed by this time of a family (wife Roz and two children), Zinn might have taken a more cautious approach to the incipient civil rights movement. Instead, he encouraged and supported his students, an involvement that naturally led him into conflict with the administration of the college and just as naturally led him to protest the Vietnam war. Along with Daniel Berrigan, Zinn went in 1968 as a representative of the peace movement to receive three American prisoner-of-war pilots, a peace gesture from the North Vietnamese. The transfer occurred without mishap, but the pilots were spirited away by U.S. officials in Laos, to be returned to the States under military auspices. Although the eventual end of the Vietnam War allowed Zinn to explore other forms of writing (including plays), he remains a committed and outspoken activist.

Various of Zinn’s students and colleagues are interviewed, including Marian Wright Edelman, Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, Tom Hayden, and Alice Walker. More than mere testimonials, these comments underline Zinn’s unsentimental dedication to the democracy he believes in. A strict advocate of active, nonviolent civil disobedience, he emphasizes an often-forgotten distinction between acts that are immoral rather than merely illegal. Well-chosen archival footage and stills flesh out Zinn’s narrative, the soundtrack enlivened by Billy Bragg and Woody Guthrie.

Zinn leavens his home truths with sharp humor, his modesty quite uncommon among contemporary American public figures, refuting the standard view of America since WWII (and blasted loudest in the last four years) which posits this country as an institution to be fortressed against alien influences. Instead of the hideous nostalgia for a movie-past, Zinn restores to mainstream U.S. history omissions that prove the strength of individuals who have made common cause: “We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train profits from good timing: amidst the craven capitalizing on people’s fears, when the Bush administration envisions a flag-draped future as controlled and assured as the creepily concocted Florida town of Celebration, Zinn’s vital message reminds us that America is not a fixed and determined institution. In the final moments of this concise, well-realized film, Zinn describes the future as “an infinite succession of presents, and to live now [sic] as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory” — a victory far removed from the moribund lockstep of “mission accomplished.”