An Unreasonable Man

March, 2007, Documentary

Directed by:Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan

Starring:Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, Phil Donahue, William Greider, Eric Alterman, and James Ridgeway

There are few more polarizing figures in American public life than Ralph Nader, whose crusades against major U.S. corporations and our two major political parties have occupied center, (or near center) stage for over 40 years. His fans worship; his detractors curse - - few seem to hold no opinion one way or the other. But thanks to first-time documentary directors Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan, that middle ground of indifference may soon change.  This informative but meandering examination of Nader’s influence intersperses period newsreel footage with talking-head opinions from those on both sides of the debate. The results evoke Topol’s “on the other hand” line from the song “Tradition” in Fiddler on the Roof. Evenhandedness is perfectly fine unless it gets in the way of arriving at an actual conclusion.

From his headline-making battle in the ‘60’s with General Motors over the safety of the Corvair automobile, (outlined in his book “Unsafe at any Speed”) Nader has railed at what he sees as a domestic version of Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex, lambasting corporate America for putting profits before safety and Congress for cozying up to the deep campaign-contribution pockets of private enterprise. His impact and importance reached their apex just before the Regan years, when “Nader’s Raiders” worked on legislation involving food labeling, pollution and auto safety. But the country’s neoconservative era saw much of Nader’s work frustrated and by the end of the 1990’s, he’d switched his focus to the political process itself. Running as a third party candidate against Gore and Bush, Nader’s critics argue that he cost Gore the presidency, an assertion Nader and the film deny with rather dubious, selective statistics. Bloodied but unbowed, he ran again in 2004 and 2008, but on both occasions found that his appeal had precipitously declined. He was left out of the national campaign debating process so thoroughly that it served to confirm Nader’s conviction there exists a considerable conspiracy to silence him. While his projects no longer receive the considerable funding he enjoyed in his heyday, Nader plods on, insisting that he’s been right all along in fighting America’s vested interests…

The most damning aspect of An Unreasonable Man lies in the fact that the highly personal and largely undocumented assertions of both Nader’s critics and champions simply aren’t supported with sufficient information to permit the viewer to make an informed judgment about whether he’s been a positive or negative force in shaping America’s agenda. His detractors grow almost purple in their denunciation while his supporters gloss over Nader’s role in deciding the 2000 presidential election with self-serving rhetoric. The film also permits its interviewees to claim that Nader and his colleagues were solely responsible for the legislative successes of the Carter years, an assertion manifestly at odds with the significant amount of political cooperation required for the successful passage of any piece of national legislation  

With the unblinking certitude of a true zealot, Nader vows to continue his battles with the establishment, but this examination of his life’s work makes it impossible to either cheer for or jeer at his efforts. While the principal elements of Nader’s character are detailed, the movie’s point of view is as enigmatic as its subject. If you’ve been ambiguous up to now about the value of Nader’s contributions or the damage he’s done, An Unreasonable Man won’t solve your quandary.

Jake's Takes comments powered by Disqus