An Unreasonable Man

An Unreasonable Man


Reviewed by: The Exile

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” - George Bernard Shaw

Dry as dust and almost as difficult to like, Ralph Nader slips in and out of An Unreasonable Man as though embarrassed to be seen in a movie about himself. Indeed, Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan’s defiantly upbeat documentary might as well have been called An Impatient Man, as Nader has no time for anything not immediately concerned with the future of mankind. He’s a bit like an Old Testament prophet, frowning and driven and endlessly repeating his anti-corporatist ideology, refusing to be distracted by a joke or a flirtatious remark or the harsh realities of political compromise. For Nader, there is no reality but his.

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Which is probably why Mantel and Skrovan devote their first hour to reminding us why we should like him, or at least be grateful to him. An Unreasonable Man is a brave attempt to rehabilitate a reputation in tatters after its owner’s involvement in the 2000 and 2004 elections - runs for power even staunch lefties view, not altogether fairly, as responsible for two of the most damaging presidencies in this nation’s history. Before picking at those particular scabs, the filmmakers prepare a laundry list of Nader’s accomplishments, including his auto-safety crusade of the 60s (saving nearly a quarter of a million lives to date with his seat-belt regulation alone) and his pivotal role in the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, the Consumer Product Safety Act, the Freedom of Information Act and the founding of the US Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. No wonder he has never had a personal life.

This segment is less tedious than it sounds, thanks to the filmmakers’ winking inclusion of GM’s hilarious attempts to discredit their foe, hiring lawyers to obstruct and hookers to proposition and entrap (in Safeway, no less). Equally immune to the threats of the first and the blandishments of the second, Nader retaliates by filing an invasion of privacy lawsuit and using the substantial settlement to fund his organization, Public Citizen. “Bring your conscience to work,” he tells the eager young law grads who become known as Nader’s Raiders, and they do. All the way through the Carter Administration.

When 70s altruism gives way to 80s greed, Nader continues his battles with dwindling influence and increasing public exasperation. Part of his problem (and a big one for the film) is that he may be easy to admire but he’s hard to like. A moral absolutist with no close friends - or girlfriends, boyfriends or cats - Nader appears to indulge no interests beyond his work and no opinions other than his own. The man is chronically dull, and quick to turn on former allies when they disappoint him, refusing to acknowledge political or personal constraints. His lack of emotion (which I experienced in person at the screening I attended) is alienating, and the movie admits to the problem by offering clips of Nader on Saturday Night Live. It helps only a little.

More useful is the klatch of celebrities that populates the film’s second half, which focuses on Nader's controversial runs for President. As Nader morphs from consumer activist to electoral scapegoat right before our eyes, whiners and apologists from both sides of the aisle offer their two cents: a grinning Pat Buchanan, who’s quite generous about Nader; Michael Moore and Bill Maher begging Nader on bended knee not to run in 2004. Most of the vitriol, understandably, comes from the left, with Todd Gitlin and The Nation’s smug Eric Alterman impugning not only Nader’s character but his mental health. But beneath all the name-calling, a more interesting conflict is being played out - the fight between old-school idealism and new-school expediency.

As Al Gore reinvents himself from boring loser to boring environmental activist, An Unreasonable Man asks if Nader can do the same. “I’m not interested in my legacy, I’m interested in the future,” insists the film’s subject. It would be nice if he acknowledged he’s not the only one.

Reviewed on: 18 Jul 2007
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Documentary about the rise and fall of presidential candidate Ralph Nader
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Director: Henriette Mantel, Steve Skrovan

Starring: Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, Howard Zinn, Andrew Egendorf, Robert Fellmeth

Year: 2006

Runtime: 122 minutes

Country: US


Sundance 2006

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