Back in 1965, when the world's most powerful corporation, General Motors, decided to harass the little known author of "Unsafe at Any Speed," a book critical of the automobile industry and their own Corvair in particular, they were hit with an invasion of privacy suit that made national headlines. Ralph Nader became an American hero after that, championing automobile safety and consumer protection laws as well as the creation of federal regulatory agencies like OSHA and the EPA. But in the year 2000, Nader, who had been courted by the Democratic Party in the past, ran as the Green Party candidate for the presidency and was blamed by the Democrats for throwing the election to George Bush. Nader's former allies now deemed him "An Unreasonable Man."
Directors Henriette Mantel, who used to work for Nader, and Steve Skrovan were stand-up comedians who hoped to use Mantel's experiences as the basis of a sitcom. Skrovan, who had the idea, wrote his pilot but never pitched it, instead becoming fascinated by what he was discovering about the man who had inspired it. The resulting documentary is simply stuffed with information about an extraordinary man who clearly deserves to be remembered for more than angering a bunch of Democratic voters, and yet they fail to really get at the core of what makes the man tick. The directors do attempt to present both sides of the political picture, but at least one of the presented opponents are laughably rhetorical. It is clear that the goal here is to convince those angered by Nader's recent political moves that not only did he not lose Gore the election but that his own candidacy was scuttled. They're more successful proving the latter than the former, yet they fail to explore serious questions about his platform.
Still, for anyone who only remembers Nader for his unsuccessful campaigns, or even as a consumer advocate, "An Unreasonable Man" will prove eye-opening. After a brief but snappy opening (we see former president and Nader ally Jimmy Carter imploring the man to 'go back to examining the rear end of automobiles' instead of risking the election, then admirer Phil Donahue astonished at the criticisms being heaped upon the man), the filmmakers travel right back to 1965 to document the man's history from its beginning. First and foremost, Nader is showcased as a free speech advocate, attacking GM for its attempts to undermine his voice (the auto empire went so far as to use women in attempts to smear him with a sex scandal). After making huge inroads in automobile safety, Nader went on to attack the FDC by questioning claims made in Geritol ads and took on the FTC by empowering students who came to work for him. Know as "Nader's Raiders," these kids learned how to change the system from within.
This leadership ability is perhaps one of the most significant aspects of Nader brought to new light by Mantel and Skrovan, and yet ironically Nader emerges as the most nonpolitical of animals trying to navigate in the world of politics. A good job is done outlining how and when Nader's former friends and allies began to become combatants, most significantly in the figure of National Traffic and Safety Commission head Joan Claybrook and most recently with Michael Moore, but Nader's inability to compromise and work the system is not called into question. 'It's just the way Ralph is' is the final word.
The filmmakers return to the recent present to offer arguments to justify Nader's 2000 presidential run. He is not significant enough in polls to be invited into debates (and his refusal to be admitted as an audience member with ticket in hand and an invite from Fox News is jaw-dropping while at the same time smacking of Michael Moore ambush tactics), yet blamed for throwing an election. Nader cites the number of votes Gore lost by and shows that every other independent candidate running received more votes. And yet there's an obstinacy in Nader's methods that still bleeds through.
"An Unreasonable Man" isn't all serious bio - it also has moments of humor, particularly when an office manager describes daily life with a man who thrives in 'organized chaos' and receives voluminous and often wacky correspondence (he's been sent such things as a drive shaft and a surgically removed human lung packed in dry ice). Old SNL footage gives us proof to the claim that the man can be extremely funny. Less successful is an attempt to delve into his personal life, perhaps because there isn't one. Nader has never been romantically linked to anyone - 'his work is his life partner,' one of his sisters tells us.
An unreasonable man? Or an extraordinary American? Mantel and Skrovan's partial documentary ends up a complex portrait of a man who is both.
George Bernard Shaw, in his Maxims for Revolutionists (1903), said, “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.” Documentary filmmakers Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan delve into the life of consumer advocate Ralph Nader who proves to be the ultimate “An Unreasonable Man.”
In 1966, General Motors, the largest, most powerful corporation in the world, pitted its vast resources in a smear campaign against a near-unheard of public interest lawyer who published a book that strongly criticized their car, the Chevrolet Corvair. Unsafe at Any Speed lambasted the company for building a car that proved to be potentially deadly to the consumer and GM wanted the lawyer’s (Ralph Nader) guts for garters. But, they failed to get the goods on Nader and the scandal that ensued propelled the obscure advocate to national prominence.
The list of accomplishments and legislations spawned by Ralph Nader are astounding – National Automobile and Highway Safety Act (1965); Clean Water Act (1968); Clean Air Act (1970); law establishing the Environmental Protection Agency (1970); Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) (1970);Freedom of Information Act of 1974; to name just a few. But, he is best known and blamed, most recently, as the man whose Green Party campaign for president in 2000 lost Al Gore the election to George W. Bush (a charge that I vehemently oppose).
Docu makers Mantel and Skrovan begin this in-depth look at the life of a man, who did more for consumer advocacy than most modern presidents, with the national criticism for losing the Democrats the presidency. The meat of “An Unreasonable Man,” though, is the incredible life and times of a man who advanced the American people’s quality of life better than any other individual citizen in modern times.
An Unreasonable Man” is a heartfelt study, by its makers, of the man who went from obscurity in the early 60’s to become a David unafraid to go against any Goliath that needed to be taken down. His opponents ranged from General Motors to federal and state government bureaucracies as he, time after time, pushed through legislations that would protect the individual citizen on many levels of life.
While the film begins with a litany of criticism from many Nader detractors for “losing” the Democrats the 2000 presidential election, the real intent of “An Unreasonable Man” is to showcase the vast good Ralph did over his decades long career as a public advocate. The who’s who of interviewees, both for and against Nader, range from former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan to NHTSA director and president of Public Citizen, Joan Claybrook, “Nader 2000” co-chair and renowned talk show host, Phil Donahue, investigative journalist James Ridgeway, political analyst Lawrence O’Donnell, historian Howard Zinn (author of A People’s History of the United States) and a host of others. This long list of contributors to the documentary, both pro and con, helps to give it the balance needed to allow you, the viewer, to decide if Ralph is a hero or pariah. IMHO, he’s a hero in the truest sense of the word (but I thought that before seeing “An Unreasonable Man”).
Documentary films have attained, in recent years, the respect and audience attention that had eluded them, with only a few exceptions. Over the past few years, though, they have found their metier and frequently affect public opinion, opening the average person’s eyes to things good and bad. “An Unreasonable Man” shows us how one individual, albeit a very special one in Ralph Nader, can change the world. I give it a B+.
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