The Boston chapter of my union, the National Writers Union (NWU), last night presented the documentary "You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train" on the life and times of the late Howard Zinn. While Zinn’s words (read by his neighbor Matt Damon) are often so inspiring, the film itself was a disappointment.
According to the evening’s organizer Shirley Moskow, the travel and arts writer, Zinn once told one of our chapter activists: “I never refuse to join any union that will have me.” As an author though, he was a member of our NWU chapter for decades, volunteering to be the keynote speaker at our annual members’ book party just a few years ago.
I was an undergraduate at Boston University from 1965; Zinn had arrived at BU the year before. He and I were at many anti-war and anti-racism demonstrations together. So on my return to the States this millennium, it was cool to reconnect when I joined the NWU. I was looking forward to this film, not the least to re-live those heady revolutionary days at BU via the archival material.
The documentary, based on his memoir of the same name, did a good job of placing Zinn in the Brooklyn working-class immigrant world of his parents, of looking closely at his experience as a bomber pilot in the US Air Force during WWII and then of his activism at BU.
I learned a lot about his trip to Vietnam, which the directors Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller covered fully with both archival material and an interview with Zinn, and they did a good job of talking about the transformation of BU at the hands of the reactionary John Silber starting in 1971 (after my time). Although Zinn’s time at the historically Black Spelman College spanned from 1956 through 1963, the documentary only lightly covered this significant formative period.
Two aspects of this film were especially disappointing. First, not one woman's voice or visage was included until about halfway or 2/3 through the film, and then rather sparsely. It was good to eventually hear from both Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman, but I was deeply involved in the anti-war movement and, trust me, one would have to work hard to exclude our very vital presence. I was very happy that my old BU friend Ray Mungo was included among the talking heads, but where were those of us who were equally committed but who don’t have a penis? Even his wife Roz was presented as an accessory without a single spoken line. (I can’t help but wonder: Did she turn down requests for an interview or was she never asked?)
My other dissatisfaction was that the film was simply not moving. It was dry, lacking all emotional connection. Zinn himself had no airs and graces; he had the ability to grab any grain of optimism and to admire every shred of humanity in a situation. He was funny and warm and his work continues to impact the world. My young physical therapist has just discovered The Peoples’ History and he is finding it a total revelation.
It is a shame that this film about such an inspiring figure failed to move the audience, despite all its interview and archival material. Ultimately, it is worth seeing as long as you mute your expectations.
This was the only clip I could find for you on YouTube, a somewhat odd choice focusing as it does only on the admittedly profound experiences of Zinn in the US Air Force during WWII.