An Unreasonable Man, the excellent documentary about Ralph Nader, is a tragedy in two acts. Directors Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan devote the first half to an overview of Nader's days as an admired consumer advocate in the '60s, '70s and '80s. The second tackles those sad and controversial days surrounding the 2000 and 2004 elections, when he was accused by Democrats and others on the left of being a "spoiler" who brought about the victory of George W Bush.
In this time of apathy and perceived powerlessness, when heroes' contributions to humanity tend to be counted in touchdowns, cars owned or albums sold, the first half of An Unreasonable Man is an empowering account of a humanistic role model. The contributions Nader made to the environment, consumer safety and radicalized democracy are astounding. When General Motors had the man tailed, it couldn't uncover a single thing with which to impugn his character.
It is tragic that the second half of the film-where many of his supporters deserted him, and where he became a much-maligned pariah amongst his former cohorts on the American left-needs to be included.
The pithiest censure against Nader, though it comes within a salvo of baseless, frothing-at-the-mouth vilifications (including placing responsibility for the Iraq War squarely on Nader's shoulders), comes from The Nation columnist Eric Alterman. Alterman accuses Nader of being a Leninist, of subscribing to the belief that "things have to get worse before they get better."
That Nader is responsible for the Iraq War is certainly untrue. But Nader's assertion that there exists not "a lick of difference" between the two parties seems equally self-delusional. Moreover, it's self-serving. His anti-corporate work undoubtedly requires a fed-up public. It is entirely plausible that hidden within Nader's "unreasonableness" lays not only idealism, but also a neo-Leninist impulse.
But even if this accusation is true, it cannot take away from Nader's importance, not only as an advocate, but as an uncompromising public idealist. Because Bush was so dangerous, should everyone have self-censored his/her heartfelt ideas in order to win and simply shut up?
Though Mantel and Skrovan shy away from overt, preachy position-taking, they clearly don't think so. In fact, their inclusion of opinions from "both sides" of the argument is a tad disingenuous. Nader apologists are cast in a much warmer light than are his detractors.
In one amusing segment Mantel and Skrovan use a little of former Nader ally Michael Moore's medicine against him(the hypocrisy-exposing juxtaposition). By contrasting a speech Moore made at a Nader rally in 2000, where he passionately lambasted the lesser of two evils argument, against a speech given during the run-up to the 2004 election where he took the polar opposite position, Moore is made to look like, at best, a flip-flopper and, at worst, a compromised hypocrite.
Whether or not Nader ought to have taken the pragmatic path instead of the stubbornly idealistic one he chose will continue to be debated. It is certainly an ironic twist of history that Al Gore (whose documentary, An Inconvenient Truth was released at the same Sundance as An Unreasonable Man) has, since losing the election in 2004, become the most important consumer advocate and citizen activist in the United States. He is, in terms of public perception, perhaps the man most similar to the Nader so beloved in the '60s, '70s and '80s.
By "spoiling" Gore's shot at the presidency, might Nader have set him free to be a better version of himself? Alas, the historical reverberations of decisions can simply never be calculated in full.
An Unreasonable Man Directed by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan With Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan and Howard Zinn The Screen 122 min. NR