An Unreasonable Man
2006Director: Henriette Mantel, Steve Skrovan
Cast: Joan Claybrook, Ralph Nader, James Ridgeway
ucking Nader,” a friend muttered on Election Night 2000 as the Florida returns showed a Bush-Gore dead heat; his words have been a mantra for Democrats ever since. The first hour of An Unreasonable Man is a serviceable primer on Ralph Nader’s lionized activist career that placed “consumerism” in the dictionary and spurred the passage of regulations on car safety, clean air, and food content. However, implicit in the documentary’s epigraph by George Bernard Shaw (progress depends on the unreasonable man who “persists in trying to adapt the world to himself”) is a reappraisal of Candidate Ralph-as-spoiler image made pervasive by six-plus years of Dem scapegoating. Once celebrated for protecting the citizenry from unsafe vehicles, Nader has been scorned for blowing the whistle on unsafe politicians.
Through a fairly conventional assembly of talking heads and archival clips, An Unreasonable Man establishes its subject’s moral profile with the stirring imagery of his David vs. Goliath battle with General Motors in 1966. Promotional clips of sexy gleaming deathtraps with no seatbelts or airbags are intercut with glimpses of young Nader before Congress, excoriating GM’s Corvair model (soon to be the subject of his bestselling exposé Unsafe at Any Speed). When Senate hearings revealed GM’s ham-fisted hiring of a detective to dig up dirt on their ascetic critic, the zealous Harvard Law grad’s first triumph was assured—the fallout helped get a federal auto safety bill through Congress in two months, won Nader a hefty invasion-of-privacy settlement against GM, and enabled him to launch myriad crusades with a corps of low-paid, idealistic collegiate researchers dubbed Nader’s Raiders.
Interviews with Nader’s former charges clarify the source of their passion; due to their leader’s stature and the anti-corporate zeitgeist of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, they were actually getting stuff donein the corridors of power. Nader thrived as Mr. Outside in this period, scoring legislative successes, rejecting pleas to run for office, and annually making Most Admired Americans lists. But when Jimmy Carter appointed numerous former Raiders to government posts in 1977, their ex-boss chafed at their compromises, stymied by the increasingly aggressive business lobby that slowed or torpedoed reform initiatives. Picking his battles more carefully in the ‘80s, Nader took up smaller grassroots issues, including regional fights against high utility rates. Shunned by the triangulating Bill Clinton after tentative presidential runs in ’92 and ’96, Nader explains that the impatience of twenty years of “waiting for the Democrats to stand up” spurred his Green Party campaign in 2000.
Every viewer will bring ideological baggage to this chronicle of the most controversial third-party candidacy since that of George Wallace. While scenes of Nader’s celebrity-laden “super rallies” verify his appeal to the pierced, vegan Ani DiFranco crowd, historian Howard Zinn provides a laundry list of center-right Clinton-Gore policies that motivated a larger chunk of disenchanted Dems and independents. Eight years of rage towards Republican Lite supported Nader’s assertion that “not a dime’s worth of difference” existed between the major parties. Playing a rigged game and seeing his polls dwindle from a midsummer high, Nader increasingly relied on free news coverage—which often painted him as The Spoiler—rather than advertising, and he began to attract the op-ed rage that boiled over after November 7th.
The Blame Ralph media brigade is represented by the apoplectic braying of lib pundits Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin, who label Nader “a megalomaniac,” “delusional and dishonest,” “not a serious person,” etc. Alterman envisions an election-eve speech where the Green candidate could have magnanimously released his supporters to vote for Gore, which another interviewee immediately nails as being utterly without precedent in the history of third-party politics. To expect Nader to reverse his slogan, “Vote your conscience, not your fears,” at the eleventh hour merely because the Dems felt entitled to progressive votes they did nothing to earn seems more baldly arrogant than anything The Spoiler is accused of. A less shrill set of anti-Ralph campaigners is represented by founders of Nader’s Raiders for Gore, who judged their ex-boss’ race ill-timed and counter-productive to their original goals. But the most salient defense of a Nader protest vote is made by MSNBC analyst Lawrence O’Donnell: “You get nothing unless you demonstrate that you’re willing to vote against [the Democrats]. When I worked for them, I never had to listen to anyone on the left because they had nowhere to go.”
While Ralph Nader’s 3% popular-vote showing (he was gunning for 5% to qualify his party for 2004 federal funds) may illustrate the limits of his overwhelmingly white, middle-class support in a no-frills race, he is an idealist whose critics expect him to act like a politician. A son of Lebanese immigrants who inculcated social awareness in him from childhood, Nader emerges from this portrayal as unswervingly consistent in devotion to his civic missions, personal loyalty and historical standing be damned. When pleading indifference to the possible destruction of his legacy in 2000, he barks, “What are they gonna do, rip the airbags out of the cars?”
An Unreasonable Man is currently playing in limited release.
By: Bill Weber
Published on: 2007-02-27