I'll admit, I walked into An Unreasonable Man with some pretty adamant opinions about Ralph Nader and his involvement in the last two U.S. Presidential elections. I have viewed him for quite some time as a solipsistic individual who wanted to be the big man so badly, he tossed all other concerns out the window. Judging by the amount of air time his detractors got in the trailer for this documentary, I assumed the movie was going to confirm my beliefs.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
An Unreasonable Man is the first directorial effort of Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan, who have both previously worked in various capacities for different television shows. This movie is their attempt to examine the life and legacy of Nader, and while the title might sound like a dig, it's taken from a George Bernard Shaw quote about how unreasonable men, by standing by the courage of their convictions, can change the course of human history. It's with that kind of consideration that the filmmakers create their portrait of one of the most vilified participants of American politics in recent memory.
The documentary starts at the beginning of Nader's career as a consumer advocate, when he set out to prove that the automobile manufacturers knew that some of their aesthetic designs were not the safest choices for their cars. After a terrible blunder by General Motors when they hired private agents to try to smear Nader, the young lawyer was catapulted into the spotlight. He used its glare to expose other cases where corporate greed superceded the best interests of the consumer, leading the charge through the '60s and '70s to get big business to clean up its act. He and his team of Nader's Raiders were extremely successful, only losing ground as Ronald Reagan took office in 1980. Seeing his political cache in Washington dwindling, he changed his approach and started working in a grass roots manner, going from community to community and working on problems by empowering individuals to solve them.
In the 1990s, Nader got fed up with the two-party political system. He felt the two groups were moving closer and closer together, and that by voting for one guy simply because he wasn't as bad as the other just encouraged them to get worse and worse. Having tried to influence the Democrats from the outside and not being heard, he decided to start his own campaigns, and this eventually lead to his infamous run against Bush and Gore in 2000.
Up until that fateful run for the Presidency, Mantel and Skrovan keep things pretty straightforward. Former Nader's Raiders, journalists, and pundits provide anecdotal insight into the vast safety campaigns Ralph spearheaded, chronicling the successes and failures and even getting into some of the personal foibles that you'll encounter in such a driven individual. Nader participates with the film fully, giving his takes on the different stories, and archival footage actually shows him in action. What is laid out for the viewer is an incredible resume of public service. Nader was a tireless advocate, and his accomplishments are astounding.
Continuing on the straight line of his ambition, the move into Presidential politics doesn't seem like a strange move at all. Nader states his case quite clearly: he wanted to shake up the system, get people interested, and have them demand more from their elected officials. As he got deeper and deeper into the 2000 campaign, the story played out much like his earlier battles against big business. The more he rattled the cages, the more he revealed how far removed the common man was from the electoral process. The footage of Ralph being ejected from the site of the first debate between Bush and Gore will astonish you. It's an appalling misuse of power, and one that the debate committee would later be forced to apologize for.
I was also pretty shocked by how successful Nader really was that year. As his campaign workers explain the upward trajectory of his efforts, it would be easy to think that their opinions are a bit skewed towards the positive, but the footage of his massive rallies and the sheer numbers behind him don't lie. Did you know he sold out Madison Square Garden, speaking to an audience far larger than his opponents? I know I didn't, and when the filmmakers show how deep in the New York Times the coverage of the event was buried, it's easy to see why. I was also shocked by the famous pundits who stumped for Nader in 2000, most of whom were then shown to have turned against him in 2004. If you already haven't had enough of Michael Moore, seeing him hung on the hypocrisy of his own words in An Unreasonable Man may put you off him for good.
An Unreasonable Man not only makes a strong case for why the generally accepted belief that Ralph Nader cost both Al Gore and John Kerry the elections is false, but also for why we shouldn't punish the man for sticking to what he believes. After all, it's that determination that saved millions of lives for the past 40 years. If the movie has any failing, it's that it maybe doesn't work hard enough to find a well-argued case to support Ralph's detractors. The critics interviewed for the documentary deal almost exclusively in rhetoric, and they come off as silly next to the supporters who frame their arguments with facts and statistics (including a Democrat who did an independent study that showed Nader's intentions were sound and that he was not purposely "spoiling" the election for Gore). In this area, An Unreasonable Man gets dangerously close to becoming a shine job, but the directors manage to stop just short of losing the game.
While An Unreasonable Man shouldn't be the sole source of anyone's information on the topic, it will definitely effect how you look at both Ralph Nader and the criticism he has of our two-party system. Clearly, the media haven't done their job in reporting the realities of his efforts, and the larger political machine has acted in less than honest ways to preserve its position of power. While I can't say the movie convinced me that I'd vote for Nader if he ran again in 2008, An Unreasonable Man will be the reason why I'll at least lend him my ear if he does. Enter this movie with an open mind, or even go like me thinking it's closed. I think you're going to be surprised.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.