It is November 7, Election Day in America, the year of our Lord 2000, and en route to the ballot (screen, chad dimpler, whatever) every hand miraculously freezes in mid-selection. All at once, there is a lightning-fast stroboscopic blip of the future: two planes, human rain, a shower of debris and dust; tortured prisoners heaped in a pile; flag-draped coffins. Muzzle flashes blink in the Superdome. A grinning man in a flight suit poses before a banner reading, "Mission Accomplished." A flash, a fade, the world unfreezes, and all eyes return to the ballot. Having seen what they've seen, does anyone vote for Ralph Nader?
Infuriating, combative, infernally self-righteous—and often right—the vexing vote-splitter is the subject of An Unreasonable Man, Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's sprawling documentary. A cornucopia of talking-head rancor, indefatigable idealism, and livid history, the film argues that the crusading activist, organizer, and working man's champion deserves a bigger place in history than as just the Grinch Who Spoiled the Election. That doesn't mean he'll get it. As even Nader's friend and supporter Phil Donahue concludes, "It's going to be the first line of his obit."
Like its subject, the movie leads with its chin, starting with Nader's announcement of his 2004 presidential run—a move that sent liberals still smarting from 2000 (including many former supporters) scurrying for torches and pitchforks. "Thank you, Ralph, for the Iraq War...thank you, Ralph, for the destruction of the Constitution," catcalls The Nation's insufferable smarm-bucket Eric Alterman, as if the mag hadn't hailed Nader's hoisting of the Green flag early on when it was politically convenient.
Hard to believe, but the Benedict Arnold of the weathervane bleeding-heart set was once a hero—a little guy who brought Big Auto to heel, helped prevent more than 190,000 automotive deaths in 30 years, and was directly responsible for the Environmental Protection Agency, OSHA, the Freedom of Information Act, and other vital public safeguards. The question An Unreasonable Man addresses is why—as in, Why didn't Nader the public servant just hand over his votes to Al Gore or John Kerry, and concede that a lesser evil is still better than a greater one?
The answer the movie presents is complicated: Because Nader grew up amid the town-hall government of his Connecticut hometown, and came away certain that open debate and citizen engagement are the purest forms of democracy. Because Nader is convinced, rightly or wrongly, that all of his missions carry a public mandate. Because Nader is one competitive, argumentative cuss. Because Nader has no truck with the idea of realpolitik, or with perpetuating a rotten system. (Just how rotten we see on camera, when state troopers block Nader from attending the 2000 presidential debate—a debate he would have greatly enriched, which was of course the problem.) And also, not least of all, because he couldn't stomach the candidates. "I'm a 20-year veteran of the folly of the 'least worst,'" Nader tells the filmmakers.
An Unreasonable Man shifts from Nader's present infamy to his first public triumph: his early-1960s crusade against accident-prone design flaws in the sleek, sexy machines rolling off Detroit's assembly lines. When GM played hardball, hiring hookers and detectives to discredit Nader, the resulting congressional inquest and six-figure invasion-of-privacy settlement made his career—Nader became the Capra-esque embodiment of the guy who fights City Hall and wins. The revelation of Mantel and Skrovan's documentary is how long he maintained that reputation, and how deeply he instilled his ideals in others. Mantel, herself a former Nader staffer, and Skrovan, a veteran staff writer on Everybody Loves Raymond, interview a number of the young activists who flocked to Washington in the late '60s as "Nader's Raiders"—proto-wonks too straight-laced for the Yippie movement, but inspired by Nader to flex their civic muscle for the common good.
Though plainly sympathetic, An Unreasonable Man doesn't so much endorse as explain Nader's decision not to step aside after it was clear he had campaigned too effectively for the Democrats' comfort. (The Dems were the "meanest bunch of motherfuckers I've ever run across," observes the invaluable investigative reporter James Ridgeway, which is saying something.) The filmmakers give ample voice to usual-suspect critics such as Alterman and Todd Gitlin, who brand Nader a deluded megalomaniac and deeply troubled. More affecting are the former Raiders who respectfully regret their boss's refusal to back down, and find his subsequent brush-off a brutally unsentimental rejection of their shared past. Sadder still are the clips of former supporters Susan Sarandon and Michael Moore actively campaigning against him—as if the ideals they once shared were no longer even an option.
The question remains: Knowing what they know now, do Nader supporters regret their vote? For most, almost certainly—and Gore today seems a much more progressive figure than the lump of centrist taffy who stumped in 2000—but An Unreasonable Man reminds us why a vote for Nader mattered: Because it represented the unshakable belief in a better future, and in an individual's power to effect positive change. The film's title refers to George Bernard Shaw's dictum that "all progress depends on the unreasonable man" who insists on bending the world to his will. If the film shows that few men are as unreasonable as Ralph Nader, it also shows that few have so succeeded in shaping their world: His legacy of progressive legislation will affect generations to come. If Nader is guilty of anything, it's of clinging to his ideals amid a dam burst of compromise and disillusionment as if they were a lifeboat—or an anchor.