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Review: ‘American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs’ doc focuses on timeless ideas

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Eugene Victor Debs in 1912 from the documentary “American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs.”
(Indiana State University Library archives / First Run features)

Timed to May Day and International Workers’ Day, on May 1, comes the documentary “American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs,” directed by Yale Strom. The film opens with the assertion that Debs was the only presidential candidate to be jailed for his platform, and the documentary then wends its way toward this event.

“American Socialist” is a fairly straightforward biographical documentary of Debs, the radical, forward-thinking Socialist leader active during the turn of the century. He got his start as a railroad union leader, was a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and rose through the ranks of the Socialist Party in the United States, which was focused on rights for workers and farmers. He ran for U.S. president five times, once from a prison cell while serving a sentence for sedition because he publicly opposed World War I, and he still managed to garner nearly a million votes.

Though Debs is a legendary and influential character, the style of “American Socialist” fails to come to life. It decidedly apes the style of Ken Burns’ documentaries, with archival photos, narrated voice-over passages, plus various contemporary talking heads.

It feels rooted in the past, despite the freshness of Debs’ ideas. But “American Socialist” is an exhaustive primer on his life, executed in a traditional style that doesn’t necessarily match the revolutionary thoughts of the man and the movement.

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‘American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena

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