There is no doubt that Ralph Nader has been one of the most influential private citizens of the 20th century. Before he got riled up about it, car safety was optional as far as manufacturers were concerned, environmental degradation was the province of wild-eyed counterculture radicals, and food safety was an illusion. By being AN UNREASONABLE MAN, he went against corporate America with all its resources, monetary and other, and won. That tenacity is the focus of the documentary by Henriette Mantell and Steve Skrovan, also entitled AN UNREASONABLE MAN and subtitled RALPH NADER: HOW DO YOU DEFINE A LEGACY?
It’s one of the questions that many people have been pondering since Nader left the private sector to make the leap into politics. Mantel and Skrovan have not so much set out to answer that directly, as to profile the object of it. In doing so, they’ve made a welcome, even comforting, response to another question that many former Nader fans have posed since he first ran for the presidency as a third-party candidate in 2000 and then again in 2004. When exactly did Ralph Nader, the gold standard on consumer advocacy, go off the rails? For this, there is an answer and that answer is that he didn’t. If we had looked close enough, we would have realized that Nader, looking askance at the world from beneath a beetling brow, was being true to himself. And a little thing like public condemnation isn’t something that would deter him. In fact, it would and probably did spur him on.
Precisely charting his first battle against the car industry in the 1960s and then his subsequent crusades through the 1970s, aided and abetted by his legion of young, clean-cut lawyers known as Nader’s Raiders, the arc of his early career successfully fighting big government and big business is thrown into contrast with the second act. That would be the genuine surprise he felt when the Democrats came to power with Jimmy Carter and didn’t live up to the promises he felt had been made to him and the American public. The shock of finding out that the loyal opposition were still politicians was something that he couldn’t quite get over. If there was a moment when he went of professional private citizen spurning any and all calls for him to run for public office, to a dedicated third-party candidate determined to overthrow the two-party system that would have to be it. The subsequent unraveling of much that he had accomplished by the Reagan Revolution only strengthened his resolve as he dug in. As always, his thinking is sound and consistent, his opposition’s, emotional and reactionary. As with his early battles, no revolution for him, but rather working from within the framework government provides to effect lasting change.
Unequivocally, he did draw attention to some hitherto occult facts, such as revealing that it is private, and not disinterested, concerns controlling the presidential debates and who is allowed participate in them. A confrontation with police outside the site of a presidential debate is a textbook Nader moment as the candidate, who had been rebuffed by the powers-that-be as a participant, politely explains with his trademark tenacity and calmness to the officer preventing him from attending as a spectator that the use of a public servant in this capacity is less than kosher. It is brilliant political theater and hearkens back to Nader’s glory days when he was the darling of the media. That media is also called on the carpet for the way it chose to cover, or rather NOT cover, Nader’s presidential campaigns. And like Nader’s glory days, it’s enough to raise righteous indignation in even the most complacent viewer.
This is a Nader’s-eye view of his life with commentary from those closest to him over the years. Closest being a relative term. His private life, if he has one at all, is not something he shares, but is something his associates are shown speculating about, particularly as associate at his agency who puckishly hopes that Ralph does have a girlfriend tucked away somewhere. The nearest the film comes to invading his privacy is interviewing his sisters and nephew on camera. They have a wealth of details about his childhood, but nothing else.
The Nader that emerges is not a fool and certainly not naive, but instead someone focused, dedicated, selfless in his dedication, and peevish about people who don’t see that he’s right. Especially if those someones were once on his side. Sides are the way he views the world. He comes away as mystified by his former supporters’ defections, as those same former supporters are that he insists upon running again. In one of the many piquant moments in which the film indulges, both Michael Moore and Bill Maher get down on their knees during a segment of Maher’s HBO series to beg him to get out of the 2004 presidential race. He refuses, and while there is a sense of bonhomie about it, all parties are dead serious about what is being asked. The underlying tension is palpable. Former colleagues and employees who write an open letter asking him to withdraw get vitriol. But there is also the less publicized part of Nader’s personality, the irrepressible sense of humor. Clips of his hosting Saturday Night Live reveal someone who is not afraid to take himself less than seriously, though with the same straight and serious face with which he faced congressional committees.
AN UNREASONABLE MAN brings together such polar opposites as Phil Donahue, who likens Nader to a Shakespearean drama, and Pat Buchanan voicing similar opinions of the man in question. Everyone interviewed have one thing in common. Some are hurt, some are outraged, but all of them genuinely like the guy, which speaks volumes in an age of divisive politics-as-full-contact sport. Painstakingly even-handed, this incisive and often surprising documentary captures a man of true and deeply held convictions without creating a hagiography. Admirable, infuriating, even peculiar, he’s an icon who deserves more than a facile dismissal by pundit or public.