An Unreasonable Man

2007, Movie, NR, 122 mins


Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's documentary attempts to rehabilitate Ralph Nader by opening on the offensive, giving his most vitriolic critics — including Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin and political journalists Eric Alterman and Morton Mintz of The Nation — the first word. Make that "words": Egomaniac, smug, arrogant, deluded, pariah, self-aggrandizing, traitor to socially progressive ideals, spoiler. Skrovan and Mantel, longtime friends and comedy professionals, seem unlikely defenders of Nader's legacy. But Mantel's 1970s stint as Nader's office manager gives her an insider's perspective, and their film is simultaneously a primer on Nader's revolutionary grassroots activism, a warts-and-all character study, and an elegy for a brilliant career in public service blighted by the third-party presidential campaign widely blamed for throwing the bitterly contested 2000 election to George Bush and ushering in a new era of conservative government.

A Princeton and Harvard-trained lawyer, Nader grew up believing that fighting city hall was a condition of democratic citizenship. He put his ideals into practice on the national stage by taking on the American automakers industry for building cars that were, to quote the title of his inflammatory book, Unsafe at Any Speed. Industry giant General Motors responded by hiring detectives, harassing Nader and his family with menacing phone calls, and trying to lure him into compromising positions. Nader's asceticism was his armor, and his dogged persistence culminated in the Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 and GM president James Roche's public apology. Nader and the youthful idealists who bought into his message that you could work the system against itself were responsible for the Freedom of Information and Occupational Safety and Health Acts, along with legislation protecting America's air and drinking water, establishing meat- and poultry-inspection standards and discouraging retaliation against whistleblowers.

But the downside of righteousness is intractability; many of Nader's former acolytes felt his scorn when they went into government and failed to live up to his standards. Nader's 1996, 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns were driven by his belief that both major parties were hopelessly compromised; his remark that there wasn't "10 cents'" worth of difference between them helped fuel a firestorm when Nader garnered enough votes to have tipped the 2000 election in Al Gore's favor. It was far from a given that his votes would otherwise have gone to Gore, but Nader threw gasoline on the fire by observing that Democratic candidates couldn't get elected because their uninspiring campaign platform was that they were better than the alternative. Ultimately, Mantel and Skrovan achieve the goal of reminding a generation that grew up enjoying the protections that Nader had spearheaded. But they also frankly acknowledge that the very qualities that made him an incorruptible activist also blinded him to the possibility of constructive compromise and fostered an alienating air of holier-than-thouness. And Nader would be fine with that — Skrovan swears that during two years of filming, Nader's only demand was, "Make sure you talk to people who oppose me." leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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