"Ralph Nader." Say the name and the blood of many liberals runs cold. The party line finds Nader in the crosshairs as the man who single-handedly cost Democrats the 2000 presidential election by running as a third-party presidential candidate who siphoned off critical votes. In more ludicrous spasms of blame, it is Nader, not George W. Bush, who is responsible for the loss of life in Iraq, according to Nation writer Eric Alterman.
An iconoclastic outsider who questions reality as it is commonly understood and refuses to toe the party line, Nader's defiant individuality has been both his most respected and most despised feature.
An Unreasonable Man, a documentary by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan, is a vindication of sorts for Nader. He is interviewed along with a number of critics and supporters alike, many of whom still believe he handed the country over to Bush on a silver platter.
What emerges is a portrait of a man who doesn't play by the usual rules, who finds his measure of justice and decency not from politicians and Washington, D.C., insiders but from the profound impressions of right and wrong established in his own Connecticut childhood. Nader's Lebanese immigrant parents preached an influential message of doing what is right and not what is merely convenient, a philosophy Nader also examines in a recent book about the importance of his upbringing: The Seventeen Traditions.
An Unreasonable Man may not convince Nader's critics – his very persona seems too centered on the kind of marching to his own drummer that is easily written off as ego and megalomania, but it remains a worthwhile examination of another side to a commonplace perception of Nader.
Critics interviewed for the film, including Columbia University's Todd Gitlin (practically frothing at the mouth), are savage in their denunciations. Even previous supporters, such as filmmaker Michael Moore and mild-mannered Jimmy Carter, are shown in public lectures turning coat to decry Nader's Green Party candidacy. An Unreasonable Man manages to give both sides room to vent, though Nader manages to rise above the fray to bolster the George Bernard Shaw quote at the film's opening that "all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
The documentary begins promisingly, surveying the crusades for consumer rights in the 1960s and '70s that earned Nader his wings as a public advocate. Nader took on some of America's largest auto manufacturers for the unsafe design flaws that were killing Americans on the nation's highways. It's clear that, in later years, Nader took on the corporate influence and timidity of powerful Democrats by performing a similar role, combating entrenched political power the same way he once fought corporate power.
The filmmakers, unfortunately, devote too much time to Nader's battle with the auto companies and not enough to the myriad ways Nader has fought for citizens' rights by advocating for the formation of the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Another drawback is the relentless parade of talking-head insiders. Missing in the interviews with journalists, politicians and upper-echelon movers and shakers is a sense of what the work that Nader has done has represented to ordinary people beyond these insiders.
But if success is measured in a documentary by its illumination of some previously overlooked facet of its subject, then An Unreasonable Man ends up working despite such omissions. In terms of peeling back the controversy that has surrounded Nader – as well as the 2000 and 2004 elections – to show the real man and his motives, An Unreasonable Man is a marvelous success. In the testimony of his former co-workers and in small moments, such as the one where Nader diplomatically confronts a Massachusetts state trooper denying him access to the 2000 presidential debate, Nader comes across as a man of character and persistence who finds a solidarity with the little people in the face of the powerful ones.
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