The Reeler


February 1, 2007

Nader Hits Town for Unreasonable Opening

Activist-turned-candidate joins directors and loyal supporters at IFC Center premiere

Ralph Nader greets the crowd at Wednesday's theatrical premiere of the documentary An Unreasonable Man (Photos: Christopher Campbell)

For a documentary buff, there are two reasons to avoid an opening-night show of a political film like An Unreasonable Man, directors Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's chronicle of consumer crusader-turned-presidential spoiler Ralph Nader. First is the likelihood that over-expressive audience members will feel the need to cheer, boo, clap and hiss whenever they agree or disagree with the talking heads on the screen. Another reason is that the Q&A, if there is one, will hardly touch on any subject close to the film’s production.

But even if both scenarios indeed came to fruition Wednesday at IFC Center, the appearance of the film's spirited subject offset the predictability factor just enough following the film's evening screening.

“I’m asked what I think of [the film],” Nader told to the crowd. “I really don’t think of it whether it was too laudatory or too slanted. The way I look at it is that it really is the historical period in our society when people -- many of whom are in this room -- came to Washington with totally no power except their facts, their conviction and their work ethic in a civic arena. And they created power. They created democratic power. And they broke through the phalanx of a corporate encirclement of that city and got to some fairly good public servants in the executive branch and the legislative branch and the courtroom.”

Of course, there was that unnecessary amount of hissing from the crowd (at footage of liberal pundit and Nader hater Eric Alterman, in particular) and only a few words from the directors about the making of the documentary. “For me it really came out of left field,” said Skrovan, a former writer-producer for Everybody Loves Raymond. “It started as a sitcom. And this is the result.”

He wasn’t joking: Skrovan connected with Mantel 20 years ago when she was working for Nader, and the duo got the idea to write a television series based on Mantel’s experiences. “We wrote it up as a sitcom treatment and CBS turned it down," Mantel said. "And the more I introduced to Steve the Nader people, and he kept finding out the story, the more it just became obvious that we had to tell the story. So now we are not comedians anymore; we are very serious documentarians.”

After the documentarians gave their short address and after they pointed out all the audience members who participated in the film, including former talk show host Phil Donahue, they introduced the main attraction. Fortunately, before getting political, he had a couple statements regarding the film.

“This is a magnificent effort,” he said. “When I see the movie, and I’ve seen it two or three times now, I say, ‘Look at all the people who fought the good fight over the last century and two centuries who have never had a documentary on them.' We know some of them. I don’t think Saul Alinsky ever had a documentary. It just has a different effect on young people. They’re very video-oriented, as you know -- not that there aren’t plenty of books on these people.”

The speech continued onto the subject of how better the country would be had those people “extrapolated” the Democratic Party. Nader also talked about the populace losing its democracy, about our un-American ethics and about the government’s “terrorism” in its inattention to the problems affecting the American people. He defended the importance of third parties, as well, before eventually getting back to his hopes for An Unreasonable Man.

Nader with Unreasonable co-director Henriette Mantel

“I hope that it will activate a whole younger generation of Americans,” he said, “to stop rationalizing their own futility and inherit the grandest pretension of our struggles for justice over the centuries. That’s why I like this film.”

Once Nader opened up for questions, it was strictly a political affair, and perhaps unavoidably, the first inquiry was about the chance of his running again in 2008. “It’s too early to decide,” he replied. “I’m trying to get Bill Moyers to run for the Democratic nomination.”

Another person asked if Nader had seen An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-nominated documentary of Al Gore's lecture on global warming. “Yeah, I liked the film,” Nader said. “I stood in line to buy (Gore's) book when he signed it in Washington. He was very gracious. He knows why he lost the election. From his point of view it was stolen from Tallahassee’s Supreme Court decision. He’s made [global warming] a presidential issue. It’s going to be a presidential issue, finally. I wish they had done so when they were in office for eight years. He’s made it and so have Antarctica and Alaska and Greenland and other inanimate objects.”

Thankfully, before the end of the short Q&A, Mantel was able to get in a few more words, including the possibility of follow-up doc specifically on the Commission on Presidential Debates, as well as the difficulty of acquiring balanced viewpoints for a documentary. “I was in charge of getting people who oppose Ralph,” she said. “Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin -- OK, maybe they’re a little villainish in this movie -- at least had the guts to go in front of the camera and say what they said. I have a list a mile long of people who will say it to each other at a cocktail party or under a table somewhere, but they wouldn’t say it in front of a camera.”

Following the Q&A, Nader signed his new book, The Seventeen Traditions, in theater’s Waverly bar. And another crowd packed the auditorium for more hissing.

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