Film Reviews Of
Brothers In Arms; The Atomic Cafe; The Last Mountain, And Howard
Zinn: You Canít Be Neutral On A Moving Train
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/31/14
I recently spent an afternoon engaged in streaming political documentaries that ranged from pure agitptop to anti-agitprop. The four films in question were Brothers In Arms; The Atomic Cafe; The Last Mountain, and Howard Zinn: You Canít Be Neutral On A Moving Train.
The first documentary I watched was the most blatantly propagandistic, and it was a 2004, 67 minute de facto campaign film, Brothers In Arms, for Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts- then the Democratic nominee for President. This film was released amid all the hullaballoo of Kerryís first being accused of being a war criminal, then of pumping up his Vietnam War record by the Swift Boat Republican smearmongers. The film actually shows little of either extreme, and one cannot really deny that Kerry, while winning his Silver Star, did do an extraordinary act in hunting down a VC gunner who would have blown up their swift boat, Patrol Craft Fast 94- patrolling the Mekong Delta, thus saving the lives of Kerry and the five crewmen he led.
What the film failed to do, politically, was show that Kerry was NOT the stiff ass the voters thought he was. Whatís remarkable is Kerry shows no genuine emotion in this film made for his benefit, nor do the four surviving members of his crew seem to really like him. Even more ironic is that the filmís poster shows Kerry decidedly standing away from his mates, recapitulating the gut feeling most viewers already had. The actual film is mainly archival stock footage of the war intermingled with the talking heads of the crew, and some by Kerry. They speak of several skirmishes and deaths of crew members, as well as suffering from PTSD, alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicidal thoughts. One of the crew actually claims to have never had a single negative thought nor dream, and one suspects he is part of the silent majority of veterans. Del Sandusky, the boatís pilot, gunner Mike Medeiros, gunner David Alston (the lone black crew member who becomes a pastor) and Gene Thorson- the engineman, are the surviving crew members
Director Paul Alexander does a serviceable technical job on the film, but there is a formulaic feel to not only the filmís production, but the so-called revelations of the crew members: this guyís wife died, that guy attempted suicide, this one got cancer, that one opposed Kerryís views against the war then reconciled, and on and on and, well. It is called propaganda for a reason. That stated, one wishes that Alexander had cut out the final third of the film showing the crew members on the stump for Kerry, and actually expanded on the Vietnam material by showing more footage of the crew talking about assorted incidents, as well as including other, perhaps more critical or objective people have their say. Nonetheless, for its many flaws, itís worth at least a looksy.
1982ís The Atomic Cafť is worth more than just a looksy as
itís a montage film, unnarrated, that splices together genuine Army footage
with defense films from the 1940s and 1950s, replete with all the absurd claims
about legitimately surviving a nuclear war. The brilliant tack of not employing
narration (save for that original to the military agitprop source films), nor
talking heads, nor any newly shot footage, makes this film stand out, as
assorted film sources meld into one another, and, despite being, now, as far-
three decades- from the making of this film as it was from the period it
examined, The Atomic Cafť holds up as a brilliant, if not flat out
great, example of documentary filmmaking at its finest; something of a compilation
veritť, according to co-director Jayne Loader, and I especially enjoyed seeing
character actor James Gregory in an Army propaganda film, and former Vice
Presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen in a campaign speech speaking of nuclear
realities for Texas.
Directed, produced, and filmed by Loader, Kevin Rafferty, and Pierce Rafferty this 86 minute long film hums along at seemingly half the length, for the absurdity of what was known about nuclear fallout and its aftereffects was absurd. There are a number of unintended black comedic gems, culled from the mainly public domain source films, such as this claim: Be sure to include tranquilizers to ease the strain and monotony of life in a fallout shelter. A bottle of a hundred should be sufficient for a family of four. Tranquilizers are not a narcotic, and are not habit-forming. Or this one: When not close enough to be killed, the atomic bomb is one of the most beautiful sights in the world. Or this one, after a blast, where a dad, in a fallout shelter, tells his clan: Letís wait for orders from the authorities, then we can relax. My personal favorite comes when a voiceover in a film depicting a military attack just moments after an atom bomb has exploded in the area declares that the soldiers should not worry of radiation because, if exposed to quantities bad enough to cause sterility or worse, theyíll have already been dead due the blast and heat death anyway. Literally, this is what was advised!
There is even a film with an animated turtle, Burt The Turtle, who implores people that, to survive a blast, all they need do is Ďduck and cover.í This film served, in the early 1980s, as an antidote to the mindless portrayal of the early Cold War in such nostalgia-based sitcoms like Happy Days, and strikes a nice middle ground between surrealism and pop culture. A few critics labeled the film unfair in its portrayal of the Cold War, and there is some truth to this: the international Communists were not nice people, but those in the U.S. were, as Stalin said, mostly Ďuseful idiots.í But, no real outside danger can be used to justify the utter state of ignorance and willful deception that the American public endured in these ridiculous films. In that sense, to try and be evenhanded about such blatant nonsense would be unfair, and dishonest. The Atomic Cafť thus serves its purpose as a time capsule and great film experience.
The Last Mountain, in a sense, is also a propaganda film, but in the best sense of the term, not the latterday sense that equates the term solely with willful deception. In fact, the film exposes the willful deceptions of the West Virginia governorís office and the largest mining company in the state, Massey Energy- an anti-union thugocracy run by Don Blankenship, its CEO. This is a man, we are told, made off with almost $200 million worth of compensation in his time as CEO while impoverishing hundreds of former miners, and leaving whole hollows as ghost towns. The company engages in strip mining, which entails mountaintop removal, which leaves once green mountains barren as a crater- unable to even regrow grass in the crushed rock, for there is no soil left, and pollutes streams and water supplies with heavy metals and other poisons. Many locals have taken ill, and this is where Bobby Kennedy, Jr. steps in, to help outraged locals sue the state and its Department of Environmental Protection for not doing its job, letting Massey get away without paying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of fines, and ignoring plausible studies that show the area is ripe for wind farms that could provided more energy, at a cheaper cost, indefinitely, versus a couple of decades of expensive energy from coal, with ruinous ecological effects.
Directed by Bill Haney with a technical ťlan, and produced by Haney, Clara Bingham and Eric Grunebaum, the 96 minute film is, in a way, a 21st Century coda to Barbara Koppleís seminal 1976 documentary on a mine strike in Kentucky, Harlan County, USA, and, like it, was clearly filmed over the course of several years The difference, though, is where that film showed miners on the side of right, standing up for social justice for themselves, here, the anti-union miners of Massey Energy are seen as selfish thugs who donít give a damn who dies or what natural resource gets destroyed as long as they have jobs. Several scenes show these thugs bullying and threatening the local activists, as well as Kennedy. Like The Atomic Cafť, The Last Mountain does not present the other point of view because a) that side is so overwhelmingly represented by big monied interests, and b) itís clearly the wrong side. Late in the film, we learn that Kennedy, upon the death of his uncle Ted, the Senator from Massachusetts, actually got President Obama alone, for a few minutes, and convinced him to put the screws to Massey and other coal companies, after the Obama Administration dragged its feet for its first year in office
The Last Mountain is agitprop, but it is correct in the general, if not always the specific, but the people who oppose its point of view are so Neanderthal in their view of life, and their wanton, rapacious greed, that even if it were merely correct in the abstract it would be doing a huge public service.
Speaking of agitprop, we come to a 78 minute long film that is a hagiography of a Left Wing icon, historian Howard Zinn (1922-2010), and that is Howard Zinn: You Canít Be Neutral On A Moving Train. If one wants to learn about Zinnís life, in depth, this is not the film for you. Instead, this Matt Damon narrated film, seemingly shot over a twelve top fifteen year period, gives a cursory introduction to Zinnís career in public life, and his philosophic and political views. That said, Zinn is a far more engaging and genial representative of the Far Left than his sometime co-conspirator, the linguist Noam Chomsky, who thankfully talks his head sparingly. Daniel Ellsberg, a man who, contrasted to Chomsky, actually put his money where his mouth was, for his political beliefs, is also sparingly used, as is poet and novelist Alice Walker- a former student of Zinnís when he taught at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia- a traditionally all black college.
The documentary then moves through the obligatory hagiographic movements: for Civil Rights, against the Vietnam War, for womenís rights, for nuclear disarmament, for gay rights, and against the Gulf and Iraq Wars, as well that in Afghanistan. Socially, Zinn was in synch with a number of my own personal and social beliefs, and, unlike Chomsky or filmmaker Michael Moore, he didnít embarrass himself with his overreach into areas not his purview nor outright deceits in the name of a Ďhigher cause.í On a personal note, we learn briefly of Zinnís courtship and decades long marriage, his service in World War two as a European bombardier, and his guilt over finding out about the Ďcollateral damageí his missions caused, especially when he learnt that he had been amongst the first bombing raids to use napalm.
Of course, being an extremist, Zinn falls into the same logical fallacies as his enemies on the Far Right do, such as echoing George W. Bushís stance on the war Iraq, when he declares, ĎTo be neutral and to be passive is to collaborate with whatever is going on.í Of course, merely disagreeing with the premises the other has laid out is not an option. Another example comes when we see footage of Zinn and Father Daniel Berrigan traveling to Hanoi to escort three captured American fighter pilots back to America, only to have State Department officials take over once the pilots were freed. To Zinn, this is a doublecross on a deal he thought the government had to respect, even though he and Berrigan were acting without official government sanction. And then thereís the naÔve-te displayed when the two befuddled men donít realize theyíve been played for dupes by the NVA and Soviets, as well as fallaciously believing that Americans were not tortured by their communist captors. Apparently, Zinn would never have believed the revelations made in a film like Little Dieter Needs To Fly.
Having laid that all out, however, Howard Zinn: You Canít Be Neutral On A Moving Train, is a thorough and convincing piece of hagiography, not a mere piece of hagiography, due to the well orchestrated cinematography by Judy Hoffman, slick editing by Deb Ellis, and nicely applied score by Richard Martinez. Ellis and Denis Mueller co-directed this feature and, even though I donít agree with all of Zinnís views. One cannot help but admire Zinnís integrity- as example, on the day his application for tenure was to be voted on at Boston University, Zinn did not flinch at giving a speech critical of the Universityís position on certain political issues. Too often, whether left or right of center, people involved in politics are phonies in their personal lives, never living up to their professed beliefs in private. This does not seem to be the case with Zinn, and the film, while it could have been better (as well as worse), strikes a good balance between giving personal insights and respecting the manís personal life. All in all, a film that should be seen by people across the political spectrum.
Thus, of the four films reviewed- Brothers In Arms; The Atomic Cafe; The Last Mountain, and Howard Zinn: You Canít Be Neutral On A Moving Train- feel no guilt in skipping the first, make an effort to see the fourth, but put the middle two on your must see lists. See The Last Mountain because itís simply at the epicenter of global warming, and the single most important issue on the planet today, and see The Atomic Cafť because itís not only a damned fine piece of filmmaking, but itís one of the finest examples of art made from recycled material, in any medium. And thatís something to be proud of, whatever political ax you sharpen.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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