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An Unreasonable Man (review)

Nader’s Nadir

Did Ralph Nader “spoil” the 2000 presidential election? How you answer that question may impact how you feel about this rehabilitory biographical documentary by filmmakers Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan, which seeks to take back the positive image and good name of the dedicated consumer advocate of long decades from the mud in which it has become mired in recent years. Does it succeed? Beautifully.
Of course, I do not think that Nader is to blame for George W. Bush’s winning of the White House. The angry vehemence of some of those who speak here against Nader and his supposed egotism and self-aggrandizement in running for president in the first place is a startling testament to the unshakeable conviction many on the left still hold that Nader, of all people, is the root of evil at work in the political realm today. If only Nader hadn’t “stolen” votes that were “rightfully” Al Gore’s, goes the argument, we wouldn’t be in Iraq, we’d have captured Osama Bin Laden, hell, maybe 9/11 wouldn’t even have happened.

Well. That’s a heavy burden to place on the shoulders of the man who has done more good for the American public over the last half century than probably anyone else, as Mantel (a longtime Nader friend and associate) and Skrovan lay out in clear, concise, rational terms. From seatbelts and airbags in our cars to free tickets when we get bumped off airplanes, from access to clean drinking water to access to government documents via the Freedom of Information Act of 1974, Nader has championed the consumer and fought corporate greed and government corruption even in the face of ridiculous opposition… as when General Motors sought to implicate him in a sex scandal in the 1960s, as if whether Nader’s ability to keep his zipper up would have had anything to do with whether GM cars were deathtraps.

Nader didn’t fall for GM’s entrapment, and — in a clip from 1960s congressional hearings dug up by the filmmakers — he rails against the idea that only those who live utterly ascetic lives may advocate for safety and honesty and transparency on the part of the companies who sell us things and the politicians who rule us. And it’s ironic, actually: for Nader has, by all accounts, lived a rather ascetic life himself. One friend interviewed here wonders whether we’ll someday learn he had a lover stashed away somewhere, but figures we probably won’t. That’s kind of sad, and kind of telling — this truly is a man who has dedicated his life to his work, and his work is us. And when he took the next logical step so committed a champion of the public could take — running for president — he found his biggest challenge yet coming from those who should have finally been his champion.

From Nader’s history prior to 2000, Mantel and Skrovan move on to the American debacle that was that year’s presidential election, from the concerted effort made by the private corporation that runs presidential debates to keep him away from the spotlight of a debate podium to how quickly even some of his supporters turned on him. (Who knew a private corporation was in charge of organizing presidential debates?) The filmmakers throughout interview family and friends, detractors and admirers — Mantel and Skrovan insist the only direction they took from Nader himself was to be sure they spoke to people who oppose him, but it’s in this latter section of the film that the gloves really come off and the venom flies. Unlikely names support Nader — holy crap, when did Pat Buchanan start sounding like a voice of reason? — and unlikely names can’t say enough bad things about him: lefty blogger Eric Alterman is literally spitting, he’s so angry.

What becomes clear, though, is that even for some on the left, the status quo is good enough, and that Nader’s brand of revolution — power to the people, not to corporations that answer to no one — is too extreme. Nader comes through this all just fine, a canary in the coalmine of the collapsing American system. Nader shouldn’t scare us — what he was subjected to merely trying to change things for the better should.

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MPAA: not rated

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