AN UNREASONABLE MANNR
An Unreasonable Man will seem long to some but should fill the bill for those eager to know more about Ralph Nader, especially those armchair liberals who lack the specifics but know Nader as a good-guy advocate for the little guy. As the film reveals, there's more than do-good instincts in the man who championed the consumer for so many years. The single-mindedness, while producing sweeping results by way of historic reforms, grows a little suspect and perhaps is not unrelated to the swirl of controversy surrounding Nader's recent and lamentable bids for the Presidency. But the bulk of this fine doc, packed with dozens of talking heads who eloquently provide insight into the Nader mystique, piles up evidence in favor of Nader and his efforts on behalf of the public.
At an early age, Nader learned civic awareness and aggressive problem-solving from his immigrant Lebanese father, who was active in the small Connecticut town where the family lived. Even the local government, directly run by a consensus of the entire community convening at town meetings, was uniquely democratic.
Harvard Law School provided Nader, later relocated to Washington, DC, as a public-interest lawyer, with the foundation he needed to take on such malevolent corporate behavior as the auto industry's neglect of safety features. Nader's work on behalf of car safety led to congressional hearings, harassment from General Motors and a subsequent public apology, and such required reforms now taken for granted as safety belts and safer design.
Nader's bestseller Unsafe at any Speed was his big career break and he never looked back. Major magazines and newspapers covered him and helped forge his celebrity. He ran his own little empire through his Public Citizen nonprofit and recruited idealistic college students as his Nader's Raiders.
But as Joan Claybrook, former president of Public Citizen, suggests, there were early signs of Nader's intransigence and egomania. Like other Nader alums, Claybrook went on to bigger jobs in government, and Nader was not happy. Some testimonies maintain that Nader, with no personal life, was apparently all work.
It was at the millennium that Nader slipped from much admired to much maligned when he capped his career with runs for the Presidency, moves that arguably could taint his legacy. Alluding to an inflated ego and thinking that fell far short of considerations of "a greater good," interviewees like The Nation columnist Eric Alterman and Columbia University journalism scholar Todd Gitlin blast Nader as a spoiler. They contend that Nader, running first on the Green Party ticket, then as an independent, helped pave the way for Republican victories in both the 2000 and 2004 elections by siphoning off much-needed Democratic votes. Alterman goes so far as to call Nader "a psychologically troubled man," who believes that "things have to get worse before they can get better."
Among Nader's defenders is historian Howard Zinn, who says that Clinton and Gore refused to meet with Nader, the implication being that Nader was forced to go independent as a people's candidate advocating justice and consumer interests. In his own defense, Nader blasts back at the Democrats and 2004 candidate John Kerry for not taking on "the big issues."
The filmmakers, both former stand-up comics (no joke!), and their researchers have done a stunning job of rounding up relevant archival material and knowledgeable talking heads but come up a little short in conveying the structure and operations of Nader's nonprofit citizen groups. Appellations like Public Citizen, Center for Study of Responsive Law, and Nader's Raiders pop up without explanations.
But overall, the polished An Unreasonable Man, easy on the eyes and stimulating to the mind, is well worth the two hours plus, giving viewers not just a rich look at Nader and his time but an exposé of the nasty business of politics and corporate America and why the public needs its Naders--with egos in check--more than ever.