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Ralph Nader has recently been accused of acting out of questionable motivations as well: Is he still just an advocate for the people or something darker? Comparing him to Satan would be a stretch, but there’s definitely a strong ego at play here, according to An Unreasonable Man, a compelling documentary about Nader’s career by first-time directors Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan.
The film opens with the biting comments of detractors who blame him for the Democrats’ losses in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. James Carville says that he has no greater contempt for anyone besides Jerry Falwell. Jimmy Carter announces that Nader needs to “go back to examining the rear ends of automobiles.” A Nation columnist remarks, “Thank you, Ralph, for the Iraq war.” A machine-gun list of other unpopular issues spearheaded by George W. Bush follows. The Nader haters’ thinking, of course—and these few are just drops in the liberal ocean—is that by running for president as a third-party candidate, Nader took votes away from Al Gore and John Kerry in races that were close enough to warrant hand counts and accusations of cronyism. At this early point in the movie, no more data are given: Nader’s responsibility for the current state of the country, the filmmakers seem to be saying, is as obvious as the fact that he was never going to win.
But then Mantel and Skrovan change the emotional climate. Using archival footage and a running commentary by people close to Nader, the directors go back to the beginning of the attorney-activist’s public career. Carter’s quip references Nader’s first cause, the unsafe design of cars (or “psychosexual dreamboats,” as Nader refers to them here). Prompted by an accident that left a friend of his a paraplegic, Nader wrote an article about the issue in the Nation followed by a book, 1965’s Unsafe at Any Speed, which largely focused on the Chevrolet Corvair. A weird series of events followed, thrusting Nader into the spotlight: Ford came up with a popular new safety package, which it quickly discontinued because of threats from General Motors. (Apparently, the company did not want this newfound attention to safety to lead to federal regulations.) And after the book was published, Nader determined that he was being followed by a woman who flirted with him at the Dupont Safeway. A GM exec later admitted that the company sent the vixen out to try to smear Nader’s character, which, as far as they could tell, was without flaw.
Nader’s newfound fame (Newsweek dubbed him the “Consumer Crusader”) led him to years of public-safety advocacy; his efforts led to developments such as seat belts, air bags, cigarette warnings, safer X-ray machines, and detailed drug labels. It’s difficult not to think Nader a hero based on this gleaming, intricate biography. A look at his small-town childhood reveals that he was raised by parents who had their kids debate issues at the dinner table. (His father asked him at the end of each school day, “Did you learn how to believe, or did you learn how to think?”) His activism led him to seek out a group of helpers that became known as “Nader’s Raiders,” each of them following their boss’ example of working tirelessly to seek out injustice (particularly in corporations) and improve American lives. “You can bring your conscience to work,” he’d assure them.
In making An Unreasonable Man—the title comes from a George Bernard Shaw quote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself”—the filmmakers talk with dozens of journalists, politicians (Pat Buchanan is among the more amusing ones), Nader’s current and former associates, his sisters, and safety experts to paint the portrait of a man truly interested in serving the people, who points out in interviews here that in ancient Greece, the word “politics” actually had positive connotations. You even cheer for him as the film covers his 2000 candidacy, showing snippets of speeches and zealous rallies that suggest he’s the fresh air Washington has been lacking. To hell with the stale two-party system; as Michael Moore tells a crowd, if you pick the lesser of two evils, “you still end up with evil.”
Then, somewhat unsubtly, it’s time to flip back to the naysayers (Nader should have known better in 2004) and back again to the supporters (stats prove that he wasn’t a factor in Bush’s win). Though Mantel and Skrovan’s thoroughness—and even balance—are to be commended, it all gets a bit head-spinning toward the end. The documentary is undeniably informative and interesting and will serve as an adequate crash-course for Nader neophytes. But a film dedicated to a man with a jones for warnings should come with this one: Like Nader himself usually is, it’s better to go into An Unreasonable Man already armed with an opinion.
Nader and Mantel will answer questions at Landmark’s E Street Cinema following the 4:20 p.m. and 7 p.m. screenings on Feb. 23 and 24; the two will also introduce the 9:45 p.m. screenings on those nights. For more information, call (202) 452-7672.