New York Magazine
NEW YORK REVIEW
When I received an invitation to see the new documentary An Unreasonable Man and to meet its subject, Ralph Nader, I replied that I couldn't make it but to leave my seat vacant in the name of the Iraqi and American dead. Now I've seen the movie, and I'm sorry to have been so snotty. Nader was obviously nuts to assert that there wasn't "a dime's bit of difference" between Bush and Al Gore. But the film, directed by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan, does a brilliant job of putting his 2000 run for president in context—to show how consistent it was with everything he has stood for in his remarkable career.
What makes An Unreasonable Man so compelling is its perfectly fluid line. Simply put, the private Nader and the public Nader are the same: There are no contradictions with which to grapple, no byways to explore. The son of a Lebanese immigrant who talked politics at his diner and dinner table, Nader went after the automobile companies when a friend was paralyzed in a crash—and rocketed to national prominence as a result of being tailed and harassed by General Motors. GM's settlement ended up bankrolling Nader's Raiders, which accomplished things that—given the current tortoiselike legislative climate—make one's jaw drop. OSHA, the Clean Air Act, the Freedom of Information Act—there's Nader leading the charge. A former Raider points out that if Nader had a fraction of Donald Trump's grandiosity (or money), his name would be on every seat belt.
An ascetic with a love life that even his dogged biographer couldn't uncover, Nader has turned on people who've served him loyally when they compromised too quickly. "Associates, friendships, sentiment are secondary to pushing lifesaving statutes into law," he says, setting the stage for his "Screw you" to the Democrats in 2000. But Mantel and Skrovan locate the roots of his bitterness in the Reagan era, when people who devoted their careers to tearing down certain government agencies were suddenly appointed to run them, and when the party of opposition began currying favor with the same big corporations. Ultimately, the Democrats froze out the man who should have been their mascot.
The second of the film's two hours centers on the 2000 election, and Mantel and Skrovan allow such liberal critics as Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman to vent about Nader's ethical dishonesty, megalomania, etc. Someone always answers the specific charges, though: It's clear where the filmmakers' sympathies lie. What they don't get from Nader—what no one will ever get from Nader—is an admission that however glorious his grassroots campaign felt at the time, it finished him politically in a way that no corporation could have. An Unreasonable Man does much to rehabilitate his legacy. I'm still furious at him, but no one alive deserves less to be a pariah. —Reviewed by David Edelstein, New York Magazine