Overlong and workmanlike but revealing doc charts the rise and fall of liberal activism through its most prominent figure

An Unreasonable Man

on January 31, 2007 by Ray Greene
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In Greek tragedy, that which makes a hero great is often the same quality that ultimately destroys him. In the overlong and workmanlike but ultimately quite revealing new documentary An Unreasonable Man, consumer advocate turned hapless third-party presidential candidate Ralph Nader stands revealed as having more than a little of Icarus, Oedipus and Achilles about him, and his fall from "greatness," though of little interest to the man himself, feels like a comparable reversal.

A giant of the American left, and one of the few figures of '60s liberalism whose institutional achievements remain as pertinent today as they were during his period of greatest impact, Nader's enormous legacy as a champion of individual rights against corporate interests has been virtually blotted out by his doomed 2000 presidential run, largely but somewhat simplistically blamed by Democrats for George Bush's controversial victory over Al Gore in the contested election of that year. Always hated by the American right, which nonetheless adapted Nader's barnstorming grassroots organizing strategies to counter his many legislative victories of the '60s and early '70s, Nader finds himself, in his sunset years, even more despised by his longtime allies on the left, many of whom now shun him with the puritanical vehemence the inhabitants of Hawthorne's Massachusetts demonstrated toward the adulterous Hester Prynne.

Filmmakers Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan sense the inherent drama in such a story of triumph and betrayal, and in their long-winded fashion, they manage to capture something tragic in the unflappable Nader's uncompromising commitment to the cause as he sees it. Where Hester wore a scarlet "A" for her crime, the imaginary brand Nader's liberal foes would more likely hang on him would be a "B" for "betrayer," or at least for "breaker of ranks." Nader's great sin was to give voice to the obvious: that the corporately inclined Democratic Party of Bill Clinton, with its focus on Welfare reform, "free trade" treaties, and fiscal conservatism, had more in common with the Republican Party it supposedly opposed than with the old big labor, civil rights, consumer activist coalition Nader helped form. Once he'd decided that the Clinton-era Democrats were essentially another face of the same corporate hydra he'd fought in such fabled battles as the one over putting airbags and seatbelts into cars, Nader's fierce energy and dogged persistence shifted from Democratic asset to political liability, with the fellow-traveler suddenly becoming the face of a liberal opposition movement that had a startling impact, especially on the young.

Clips from Nader's long career help define the scale of his achievements, though the extreme length of this documentary (which seems intended for a two-part presentation on television based on its conventional visual approach and E! True Hollywood Story -grade music score) actually dilutes his accomplishments more than a tighter and more focused presentation would have. In onscreen interviews, Nader's old allies run the gamut from constricted with rage (pundits Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman, who speak with an impacted bitterness that is almost disturbing to watch) to mournful and ruminative (the many alumni of "Nader's Raiders" who populate the advocacy organizations Nader helped launch, and where he is mostly no longer welcome).

In the midst of the argument over his legacy, Nader stands, slouched and articulate in his ill-fitting suit, as unflappable and unwavering as a beam of light. It is this very quality that made Nader such a compelling figure in his '60s prime, and so formidable as an adversary when he unleashed his biblical sense of judgment against the old comrades who had embraced political compromise during the dry years of the conservative '80s and '90s.

Nader's very purity of purpose has made him a unique constant in the ebbing and flowing river of muck that is the politics of his time. Whether his unflinching stance in a field based on concession and negotiation has ultimately been more reckless than principled will be left to history to decide. An Unreasonable Man should emerge as a significant artifact whenever that discussion is ready to take place. Distributor: IFC First Take
Cast: Ralph Nader, Patrick Buchanan and Eric Alterman
Directors/Screenwriters: Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan
Producer: Kevin O'Donnel
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 160 min. (BOXOFFICE reviewed An Unreasonable Man at Sundance 2006. The theatrical release is 38 minutes shorter. -Ed.
Release date: January 31, 2007 NY

Tags: Ralph Nader, Patrick Buchanan, Eric Alterman, Henriette Mantel, Steve Skrovan, Kevin O'Donnel, documentary
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