Howard Zinn is one of those intellectual icons who grab smart young people when they're already primed to adopt unconventional worldviews. Like Ayn Rand or Noam Chomsky (especially the latter), Zinn presents a clear moral vision that makes the compromises of modern society appear intolerable and reversible. When students and others encounter him for the first time—usually by reading his million-selling 1980 text A People's History Of The United States—they often get radicalized.
Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller's documentary Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train takes its title from Zinn's autobiography, and serves as an abridged version of both his life story and his political philosophy. It's mostly first-person, with Zinn describing his working-class upbringing, his service as a bomber in WWII, his years in the labor, civil-rights, and antiwar movements, and his long fight to make academia more activist. Zinn is a charismatic storyteller—he looks and acts like a mixture of all the male stars in Crimes And Misdemeanors—and the filmmakers augment his talking-head interviews with file footage, Matt Damon-narrated passages from Zinn's essays, and testimonials from Zinn friends such as Chomsky, Tom Hayden, and Alice Walker.
As a tribute to Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral hits its marks: It's tightly edited and even gripping, especially when covering his controversial trips to Vietnam in the late '60s. As documentary moviemaking, though, Ellis and Mueller's work falls a little flat. Zinn delivers stirring stump speeches, but there's not enough about the private side of his life, like the more mundane aspects of working in a university setting for nearly 40 years. (It wasn't all sit-ins, surely.) For someone known for his desire to invert the historical narrative and tell stories from the perspective of the disenfranchised, Zinn comes off as under-engaged with how people actually spend their days.
Ellis and Mueller never ask Zinn if he thinks the blue-collar crowd he champions shares his values, nor do they really consider how Zinn-worshipping idealists apply his lessons once their college days are done. And, while You Can't Be Neutral mentions his opponents in passing, none of them get any airtime here. Zinn is rightly admired for his willingness to take a stand, but the film doesn't adhere to those ideals. Where's the dissent?