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The Independent Critic

Howard Zinn
Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller
78 Mins.
First Run Features
This "Commemorative Edition" includes approximately 1 hour of bonus materials including - bonus speeches & interviews; Zinn's recommended reading list; Speech transcripts; Film Excerpts; Daniel Ellsberg's "A Memory of Howard Zinn"

 "Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train" Review 
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Just how much you're willing to celebrate the life of famed historian/activist Howard Zinn may very well depend upon which side of the political spectrum you find yourself.

Fair enough?

In the case of this award-winning doc directed by Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller, the more to the left you find yourself the more like you'll appreciate this undeniable tribute to the man perhaps most known as the author of "A People's History of the United States," but who spent a good amount of his life as an activist from the early days of civil rights activism right through to the end of his life.

Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral On a Moving Train works largely because Zinn himself is so remarkably charismatic, a tremendous storyteller whose accountings of his life never feel ego-driven yet are vivid and alive with energy and enthusiasm. Zinn himself shares about his working class beginnings, service in World War II as a bomber and, finally, his years of activism in such movements as civil rights, antiwar, labor and more.

An academic who spent 40 years working within the university setting first at Spelman College and at Boston University up until his recent death, Zinn brings this documentary to life and keeps it from drowning amidst what feels like a bit too much idol worship from the not exactly objective Ellis and Mueller. As Michael Moore proves on quite the regular basis, objectivity isn't exactly required for a documentarian and there's almost no denying that Ellis and Mueller are creating this doc as admirers of Zinn's work and life.

It also helps that Ellis and Mueller incorporate quite the community of support for the film, including such folks as Daniel Ellsberg, noted child advocate Marian Wright Edelman, writer Alice Walker and others. The film even includes music from Woody Guthrie, whom Zinn acknowledges as a very early influence on his life, along with Pearl Jam and Billy Bragg.

When Zinn himself isn't speaking, actor Matt Damon provides narration for the film and does so maintaining consistency with Zinn's energy and enthusiasm. While it's certainly possible to disagree with Zinn's left-leaning writings, it's difficult to find fault with the man himself, a gentle soul whose optimism and kind spirit was often noted and whose words have the sound of a man who simply wants history to include every side of the story and afford an opportunity for every perspective to be heard. A unique peace activist because of his activities during the Vietnam War that preceded his anti-war stance, Zinn was long noted for his willingness to listen to and attempt to understand all sides of an issue. While he has much in common with Noam Chomsky, it wouldn't be unfair to refer to him as a more optimistic, almost gentler yet no less fervent activist.

In memory of his passing, First Run Features is releasing this Commemorative Edition of this 2004 documentary that includes over an hour of bonus footage that adds immensely to the viewing experience.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic