The Reeler


January 30, 2007

An Unreasonable Man

Much-maligned Ralph Nader gets re-branded in absorbing documentary

There is now a general, often indignant consensus that F. Scott Fitzgerald's bit about there being no second acts in American lives was one of the dumbest things he ever sighed over a highball. And yet An Unreasonable Man, Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's measured, brimming survey of the life (i.e. the career) of Ralph Nader, manages to argue both in favor of and against that idea, calling to mind in the process the damning hubris of An American Tragedy, Dreiser's 1925 novel about the perils of ambition and one man's one-act life. Hop back to 1903, three years before the murder trial on which Dreiser based his masterpiece, and you have George Bernard Shaw providing a pseudo-socialist dream agenda for the 20th century in Man and Superman (and the title for this film): "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."

Only a few minutes into An Unreasonable Man, we have none other than Phil Donahue dropping the mother of all literary allusions by declaring Nader's story to be "Shakespearean" in scope and in tragedy. What becomes clear over the course of an extraordinary, absorbing two hours is that this is not just a man from another time's literature, this is a man from another -- arguably better -- time. While Nader is a virulently divisive figure today, the directors do well by their subject to trace his résumé back to its beginnings, and the things we can all can agree on. Combining a vast selection of talking head interviews and archival footage, Mantel (who later pops up as one of those talking heads, as she worked for Nader in the late '70s) and Skrovan fashion a sort of oral history (and a reasonably democratic one, including Nader himself) to reconstruct not only his accomplishments as a private citizen (a public policy record, as one commenter points out, that any president would envy), but how they forged the path toward his decision, after decades of opting out of politics, to run for president in 2000.

Before returning to the 1965 book (Unsafe at Any Speed) on which the handsome young DC lawyer would build his name and reputation, however, there is that set-up by Donahue and then a blisteringly idiotic clip of Jimmy Carter sneering that Nader should "go back to examining the rear end of automobiles." It's a statement that will become even more bitterly indicative of the short memories of the American public (not to mention Nader's peers), as well as the self-righteous rabble-rousing the Democratic Party indulged in when, rather than face its own shortcomings, it smelled a scapegoat.

From the beginning, the political was personal for Nader; his hometown of Winston, Conn., was run by decisions made at town meetings (which, as Nader and any fan of Gilmore Girls knows, is "the most pristine form of democracy"), and his father, a Lebanese immigrant, sent his children out the door in the morning with problems they were to solve (the parking shortage on Main Street) over dinner that evening. When a classmate was paralyzed in an automobile crash, Nader hit the bricks and came out with an indictment of the auto industry that made General Motors so angry they launched a smear campaign against him that included sending slinky females into the grocery store where he shopped, in the hopes of seducing him into some sort of compromising position.

What GM learned, of course, is that "compromise" is not in Nader's vocabulary; when Lyndon Johnson passed a host of life-saving auto-safety regulations, Nader kept going, suing GM for invasion of privacy and enacting new legislation in the bargain. It was the kind of audacity that drew not just crowds but disciples, and former Nader's Raiders are on hand here to talk about the purity of purpose, the satisfaction of working to correct whatever social, political or industrial issues they felt needed correcting. Nader operated within a system, throughout the '60s and into the '70s, where change was possible with enough tenacity, and he was championed as a proponent of the people. Indeed, he put this old-fashioned concept of the greater good before all personal relationships (even his sisters are flummoxed on the subject of his private life) and the loyalty he demanded meant many fallen colleagues along the way, some of whom detail their sides of these ruptures with a kind of grudging wonder.

Nader was at the height of his influence when Jimmy Carter took office in 1976, and what started out as a promising alliance dulled considerably when Carter choked on Nader’s dream of a Consumer Protection Agency. It was Reagan's second act, ironically, that undid much of Nader's work, ushering in a new era of corporate underwriting and social negligence. In the booming '80s and '90s, someone like Nader, unwilling to get behind the "profit now, ask questions later" status quo and shunned even by the Clinton administration, was painted as a sort of relic -- a naysaying party pooper, or worse, a narcissist who's just angry because nobody's listening anymore.

An Unreasonable Man builds gradually and heartbreakingly up to the 2000 election, and no matter your opinion on Nader's role in the debacle (there is a stinging clip of Katie Couric and Tim Russert exchanging a "whatareyagonnado?" look after pointing out, with the results still fresh, that polls indicated Nader's votes came from people who would have stayed home had he not been on the ballot, negating the inevitable spoiler argument), you cannot help but be dispirited by the seemingly hopeless, big lobby-driven, puppet-ocracy which much of the country has tacitly accepted as their due. It is a political landscape inhospitable to the kind of grassroots change that once made Nader a hero, and in that sense An Unreasonable Man is a requiem not for him but for a time when politics wasn't a dirty word (I mean a really dirty word); for that reason it is required viewing for all citizens, concerned or no.

By 2004, Nader is virtually friendless, his former allies have publicly disowned him, the celebrities who gleamed beside him at rallies now roll their eyes at the mention of his name. As for Nader, he remains that inscrutable combination of an advocate for the people who doesn't give a shit what you think about him. He scoffs at the idea of his legacy as others wonder how things might have gone if every seat belt, air bag or refunded plane ticket bore the "Nader" brand. While the film leaves Nader floundering in the aftermath of his attempt at a second act, the portrait in itself has done more to re-brand the man than any campaign he could have mounted. Renowned in the past, unwelcome in the present, it's not unreasonable to believe that Ralph Nader could also belong to the future. Man and Superman, after all, was a play in four acts.

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Comments (1)

The most obvious vindication for Nader is that the cause of "spoiling" is the election system itself. If he had run and made changing that system, such as promoting Instant Runoff Voting, a focus of his campaign, then he would have done a great service. Instead, he continuously fails to point out the flaws of the plurality system and direct people to support groups like Fairvote fighting for IRV around the country.

I wrote about the omission of this issue in the film at Instant Runoff Voting Excluded: An Unreasonable Omission from An Unreasonable Man. I hope you'll take a look, leave some comments, get in touch and get active for election reform instead of debating on all sides of the "spoiler" issue other than the one that allows us to actually fix it.

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