Last weekend I went to one mainstream new theatrical release (Hereafter) and another film opening at the local arthouse theater (Howl), but the film that remains most in memory this weekday morning is an academic made-for-TV 2009 documentary The People Speak, based on Howard Zinn's groundbreaking A People's History of the United States.
While disappointed with the slow pace and insipid sentimentality of Clint Eastwood's latest offering and intrigued with the educational value of James Franco's portrayal of Allen Ginsberg, Zinn's relatively uncinematic documentary delivers the most provocative points.
Filmed like a concert documentary for a multi-media Reader's Theater session that summarizes the gist of Zinn's text--an alternative view of American history told from the point of view of everyday people, rebels, and sometimes "losers" rather than the traditional versions told from the powerful, politicians, and "winners." Zinn's history was first published in 1980 and received much greater notoriety when Matt Damon's character references it in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting. (Damon appears briefly here--reciting from the Declaration of Independence)
All abuzz in the media lately as the fall elections approach are stories about the Tea Party--angry people who want to change the direction that America is taking. This is nothing new; Zinn cites numerous previous movements that sparked reforms throughout U.S. history. But the current crop of tea-baggers seem pretty fuzzy on their history.
They say they want this country to return to its roots and cite the U.S. Constitution as if it was some holy writ, but one of Zinn's zingers deftly contrasts the philosophical difference between the idealistic Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution: the former talks about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" while the latter seeks to protect "life, liberty, and property."
This distinction actually colors much of U.S. history--a huge difference between the common class of people seeking a better life during the formative years of the revolution and the ruling class during the governing stage who want to protect their priviledged station in life. Suggest to a Tea Party loyalist that the original government of the U.S. was founded with greed, sexism, racism, and classism as standards for its time, and they will want to tar and feather you. Yet it was a similar movement of "common people" that insisted on guaranteeing certain freedoms that brought about the Bill of Rights that tea baggers hold so sacred.
It's the ideas that provide the spark in The People Speak. The film itself doesn't lend itself to inventive cinema--Zinn narratives the historical overview tracing the roots of the U.S. through wars, through worker struggles, civil rights, women's sufferage, and other protests arising from common people.
These are illuminated with readings from Zinn's text and from primary source material--actors don the roles with most reading straight from the script. An impressive cast list includes Viggo Mortensen, Rosario Dawson, Marisa Tomei, Don Cheadle, Sandra Oh, Josh Brolin, Morgan Freeman, David Strathairn, and Danny Glover.
To vary the presentation relevant historical songs provide bridges like the Depression Era's "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" and Woodie Guthrie's "Do, Re, Mi" (the latter sung by Bob Dylan). Punctuating the anti-war protest movement, Eddie Vedder delivers Dylan's provocative "Masters of War."
Truly great films score high for entertainment, educational value, and artistry. The filmmakers aren't striving for greatness here, but they deliver the educational goods. If you've already read Howard Zinn's alternative view of U.S. History, you're familiar with the terrain. But this film dynamically overviews the gist of his text to make this a very worthwhile 90 minute investment.