It's not overstating the point to suggest that to a certain generation of Americans, Ralph Nader is something of a hero. It's also not overstating the point to suggest that to another generation of Americans, Ralph Nader is something akin to the Antichrist. Whichever opinion you hold, it remains a fascinating dichotomy and one powering An Unreasonable Man, Henriette Mandel and Steve Skrovan's incisive documentary about of one of our country's more influential and forward-thinking activists. It contextualizes Nader's rise to fame as a crusader for the little guy, framing him as an occasionally quixotic figure who, to the MySpace generation, just comes off as the guy who ruins elections. But perhaps what's most admirable about the film is that, in an age of withering cable news soundbites and spiteful partisan sparring, Mandel and Skrovan allow both sides near-equal time in their riveting dissection of Nader's decades in the spotlight.
The film is, for the most part, a standard biography about a self-made man: Nader, a bright, promising lawyer who cut his teeth in Washington D.C. fighting for legislation to improve everything from workers' rights to automobile safety, has evolved as the political landscape has shifted from the mid-Sixties through to the late Eighties, when Nader began edging into presidential politics, ultimately running his infamous third party campaigns in 2000 and again in 2004. Over the course of Mandel and Skrovan's surprisingly compact documentary, viewers will no doubt learn plenty about Nader that was unknown to them -- again, in an era of slam-bang soundbites, substance is often sacrificed and An Unreasonable Man digs below the surface of Nader's public facade, interviewing admirers and detractors, even talking with those who once admired Nader's various crusades for change but have come to dislike what he stands for.
Even more than its balanced approach, Mandel and Skrovan take what on its surface appears to be extremely tedious, wonky material and give it life, much like Errol Morris's The Fog of War -- Robert McNamara led a colorful life, but much of it was tangled up in policy and governmental maneuvering; if handled in a more straightforward, less flashy way, An Unreasonable Man could've been an interminable slog. The highest compliment I could pay Mandel and Skrovan's film is that by saying even those who are unfamiliar with Nader and his life's work may come away from the film with an understanding of and perhaps even empathy for one of the 20th century's more influential minds.
A seamless blend of archival footage and newly filmed interviews, An Unreasonable Man arrives on DVD with a very clean 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. There are a few occurrences of edge enhancement stemming from too brightly lit interview segments, but those instances are rare. Overall, this is an excellent visual presentation.
Comprised largely of talking heads and composer Joe Kraemer's low-key score, An Unreasonable Man's Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack isn't pushed to its limits by any means. Dialogue is heard free of distortion or drop-out and it's an acceptable mix. Optional English subtitles are also included.
Kudos to the DVD producers for seeing fit to include a healthy selection of supplements, which helps put the dense film in context and allows the filmmakers to include much more material that was understandably trimmed from the final product. Spread over two discs, the first disc contains the feature film, seven deleted scenes (playable separately or all together for an aggregate of 29 minutes, 29 seconds) and the film's theatrical trailer. The second disc houses seven featurettes -- listed below -- which feature English captions and are all presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The featurettes, all of which feature interview subjects that appear in the feature film, cover a range of topics, which prove that compressing Nader's life and interests into a little over two hours must've been a monumentally challenging task. Featurettes include "Profile of a Charismatic Leader" (33 minutes, 58 second); "What Kind of President Would Ralph Nader Be?" (11 minutes); "Debating the Role of Third Parties in the U.S." (28 minutes, 17 seconds); "What Happened to the Democratic Party?" (eight minutes, 56 seconds); "Why is the Right Better Organized Than the Left?" (six minutes, 31 seconds); "Ralph Nader on the Iraq War" (six minutes, 51 seconds) and "A Debate on Corporate Power in America" (12 minutes, 42 seconds).
Directors Henriette Mandel and Steve Skrovan take what, on its surface, appears to be extremely tedious, wonky material and give it life, If handled in a more straightforward, less flashy way, An Unreasonable Man could've been an interminable slog. The highest compliment I could pay their film is that by saying even those who are unfamiliar with Nader and his life's work may come away from the film with an understanding of and perhaps even empathy for one of the 20th century's more influential minds. Highly recommended.