Saturday, December 22, 2007
Earlier this week I was lucky enough to stumble on An Unreasonable Man, the fascinating documentary about Ralph Nader currently making the rounds on PBS. Written and directed by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan (their joint debut behind the camera, though Mantel's previous credits include, bizarrely, an episode of Win Ben Stein's Money), An Unreasonable Man hits exactly the right tone for its topic -- an obvious affection combined with (at times) clear-eyed exasperation.
Mantel and Skrovan correctly reasoned that the key to understanding Nader's present motives lies in the past, and the first hour of their film raises salient biographical points without overly dwelling on them. The son of Arab immigrants, Nader grew up in Winsted, Connecticut, where the "town meeting" was a recurring event reflective of an open system of government. Like many who go into politics, Nader earned an Ivy League education (at Princeton) and became an attorney; but he then veered from the norm by challenging the automotive industry on car safety, or the lack thereof. In the most compelling section of the movie, Nader and other interviewees describe the increasingly desperate harassment attempts by General Motors, which included sending prostitutes to try and pick him up at the supermarket ("while I'm out buying cookies," Nader deadpans) in the hopes of catching him in a compromising position. Nader goes on to say that he and his "Raiders" (the nickname given to his supporters, mostly clean-cut college kids with a penchant for activism) benefited from the 60s because, compared to more radical organizations, theirs looked less threatening. But Nader was a threat, all the more so by working within the system rather than trying to overthrow it, and following his victory over the auto magnates he continued with a string of successes against pharmaceudical companies, the aviation industry, and other corporate entities.
Eager to get to the 2000 election, Mantel and Skrovan skimp somewhat on Nader's political estrangement in the 80s and 90s and devote nearly the entire second hour to the twists and turns of the Bush vs. Gore campaign. They do, however, manage to convey that the Clinton Administration's cold shoulder toward his interests angered Nader even more than the blatant corporate sympathies of the Reagan Era and may have propelled him to seek the presidency -- something that his supporters never imagined him doing. As the Bush-Gore battle is recounted, from denying Nader a place at the debates (Pat Buchanan, another independent candidate that year, chuckles ruefully at the mug-shot flyers of Nader, himself, and other third-party candidates distributed to security and law enforcement outside the debate hall) to the debacle in Florida, the question of whether Nader was to blame for Gore's defeat threatens to degenerate into a yes-he-was/no-he-wasn't argument. But the interviewees make compelling points on both sides, with Nader's critics given ample air time (especially a frothing-at-the-mouth Eric Alterman).
Having only a superficial knowledge of Nader-as-consumer-advocate, I came away from An Unreasonable Man with a qualified admiration for him; and if that's the intention of the filmmakers, their refusal to sink to hagiography -- something Nader himself would have bristled at, one senses -- makes their objective feel earned. Mantel and Skrovan sprinkle some humorous touches, such as Nader getting stopped on the street after his appearance on a 70s-era episode of Saturday Night Live (a passer-by reportedly shouted, "I know you! You're that comedian!") and without resorting to Michael Mooreian shenanigans, they build a biting critique of the ostracizing of Nader in the 2004 campaign by big-name lefties like Moore and Susan Sarandon (who come across as unctuous tools). An Unreasonable Man is about how -- Obama or no -- the abandonment of Nader may spell the end of American political idealism. Whether or not his actions over the last decade have betrayed the Democratic Party or even the country, the film leaves us with the suggestion, somewhere between hope and lunacy, that the only one who still has an unshakable faith in the system is Nader himself.