Review: Explore a Scrappy, Single-Purpose Life in American Socialist

The primary reason this new documentary from director Yale Strom (The Last Klezmer, On the Q.T.) exists is to show that there was once a viable candidate for president running on the socialist ticket. Of course, it’s been nearly 100 years since Eugene V. Debs ran the last of his five campaigns for the top office of the United States government, but American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs illustrates where the seeds of such a movement originated and how dangerous such a run was for someone with Debs’ high profile.

Eugene V Debs Image courtesy of Gene Siskel Film Center

Narrated by actress Amy Madigan, American Socialist features an impressive collection of archival footage and photos to track its subject’s path from his home state of Indiana to railroad worker to labor organizer, before making his full conversion to embracing socialism. Often drawing comparisons to Abraham Lincoln as an orator, Debs co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World and was frequently targeted by the government for his subversive organizing tactics. Fully committed to raising the quality of living for the working and middle classes, Debs was a master at retooling Marxist doctrine into common sense ideals that appealed to God-fearing farmers and factory workers.

The film includes interviews with many experts on Debs and socialism, and it’s particularly heartening to see how many of his ideas are actually seen as classic Midwestern policies and ways of thinking—many of which became the cornerstone to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and are still struggling to stay alive today. Filmmaker Strom’s commitment to piecing together Debs’ story took him five years, and it shows in the details and remarkable timelines he’s able to reconstruct, paying particular attention to Debs’ time in prison for sedition. As if he weren’t working hard enough, Strom also composed the score and plays violin on it. The movie has a raw feel to it and isn’t the most polished doc I’ve seen lately, but that seems to fit the scrappy, no frills subject.

The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. On Saturday, March 3 at 3pm, director Yale Strom will be on hand for an audience discussion, moderated by Christopher Cutrone, adjunct associate professor of art history and visual and critical studies at SAIC, and founder and president of the Platypus Affiliated Society.
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.