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An Unreasonable Man

The Case For (And Against) Ralph Nader

As the foremost consumer advocate of the 20th century and the most controversial presidential candidate of the 21st, Ralph Nader is as fascinating as he is polarizing. Given his achievements in the fields of automobile and pharmaceutical safety, it could be argued that Nader has done more for America than some presidents. Yet he remains a figure of bitter contention, reviled in some circles for siphoning off enough votes in a few critical states to hand the 2000 election to W.

An Unreasonable Man, the new documentary by Steve Skrovan and former Nader employee Henriette Mantel, presents arguments to support both characterizations, though in the end it does more to canonize than condemn him. And perhaps rightly so. As a young lawyer who rose to prominence in the 60s by single-handedly taking on General Motors -- from which he won a settlement large enough to fund much of his early populist rabblerousing -- Nader earned a reputation as America’s most vigilant big-business watchdog. Soon he commanded a small army of idealists, dubbed Nader’s Raiders by then-Washington Post reporter William Greider, becoming an even more formidable thorn in the side of those who put the public interest second to profit.

As for his private life, there apparently was none. As most of Nader’s past and current friends attest, he has never been a man with much use for frivolous pursuits, including, in his case, romance. His life has always been his work, and whether that entails waging war on corporate greed, ensuring that all cars come equipped with safety belts and airbags, or challenging the two-party system by running on the Green ticket, Nader is singular of purpose and wholly uncompromising.

That, of course, has been his blessing and his curse. Nader has earned the unwavering allegiance of some supporters with his dogged work ethic and devotion to principle, but devotion can be a double-edged sword. There is undoubtedly some truth to his contention that the Democrats and Republicans are part of the same two-headed animal, beholden to special interests. And though Skrovan and Mantel do a good job of debunking the myth that Nader went out of his way to sabotage the 2000 election for Al Gore, there is also something to Columbia professor Todd Gitlin’s claim that Nader is “intellectually dishonest” to suggest that there was no significant difference between the two candidates. Did he swing the election to a man dangerously less suited to the job than his opponent? Many are convinced that he did.

Then again, if he believed that the two-party system was broken, why shouldn’t he have run? And what did he owe the Democrats, who, as Nader says, should have been able to beat Bush without his help? An Unreasonable Man wrestles with these questions and invites viewers to reach their own conclusions, though it clearly regards Nader as an unfairly vilified agent of change who stuck to his principles even as the lesser-of-two-evils crowd jumped ship. (It’s remarkable how many of his former allies, from personal friends to high-profile supporters like Michael Moore, have come to view him as an ego-driven nuisance in the wake of Bush’s tragically flawed presidency.) By the end, one thing is undeniable -- that Nader has dedicated his life to public service, and for that he deserves to be remembered for something more than Gore’s failure.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars