05 July 2007

An Unreasonable Man

Directed by: Henriette Mantel & Steve Skrovan

Grade: B+

Calling Ralph Nader "unreasonable", as the title of the equitable documentary An Unreasonable Man does by implication (to say nothing of the opening quote from George Bernard Shaw) is itself an unreasonable proposition, as Mr. Nader, evidenced by the speeches and interviews seen in the film, seems to be the last reasonable man in America—at least the only one who gets on television from time to time. And yet he has expended a career's worth of accrued political capital in "liberal" circles by running for president on a third-party ticket, becoming an object of disparagement amongst Democrats for seducing away their rightful votes, as the arrogant argument goes. Of course, if the Democratic Party is really looking for someone to hang the hat of blame on for their own political failures, including the two recent and pathetically lost presidential elections, perhaps they ought to look in the mirror!

Which is ultimately what An Unreasonable Man proposes that they do. But though the film offers a favorably tendentious view of Mr. Nader, it doesn't shy from allowing those with opposing points of view to have their say and thus is about as fair and balanced as a biodoc can get. (Take a note, U.S. vs. John Lennon!) The introductory sequence is comprised of a series of uncountered clips featuring a plethora of embittered Democrats, like Jimmy Carville and Jimmy Carter, taking cheap potshots and expressing hearty hostility.
But all that vitriol is in reference to Mr. Nader's presidential bid, while the bulk of the film concerns Nader's decades-long career as a consumer crusader, and it's tough without asking the Ghost of the Ol' Gipper to find somebody who could say a bad word about him as he was then.

Nader began his career as a proponent for general automotive safety, a radical concept in the early sixties when America still uncritically fetishized its automobiles (or as Nader hilariously refers to them, "psychosexual dreamboats"); he, along with other activists, revealed car accidents to be the result of flawed design. That is, he exposed car accidents as a systemic problem, and not isolated incidents involving "mad motorists", and as a result brought us protective measures such as the crash-test and the seatbelt, whose advent, the film reveals, is estimated to have since saved nearly 200,000 lives. Who but General Motors, who had him followed and harassed his family, could honestly utter a bad word about Ralph Nader?

An Unreasonable Man plays out as a polyvocal oral history, as various colleagues and contemporaries narrate the arc of Nader's public life. (The film acknowledges that Nader the lonely workhorse has no private life to speak of—never married, no lovers, etc.) He went on from car safety patron to consumer advocate extraordinaire, and with a crack team of committed confederates, who come to be known affectionately as "Nader's Raiders", went on to do research, write reports, and promote legislation that brought us warning labels on medicines, airbags and most of the safety measures (including government regulation like The Clean Air Act) that we take for granted in modern American life; Nader and his corps of supporters were unique as "Sixties Radicals" because they acted within the system and, rather than call for revolution, effectively called for the United States to simply fulfill the promise of its own mythos. Save for some minor matters of squabbling, it'd be damned near impossible for anyone who might not align themselves with the Heritage Foundation to see early Nader as anything other than an American hero of civic democracy. "He's the best American I know," the loveable Bill Murray is captured on camera as saying, and in his heyday Nader had one of the most glowing reputations in the country, right behind Walter Cronkite.

In the process, however, he became the bane of corporate America. Following the Carter years, as the Democrats became an increasingly corporatized political party—marvelously established by found news footage of Democrats meeting with corporate lobbyists for the first time, in an effort to get on equal footing with their Republican counterparts—Nader and the issues important to him were increasingly shut out; as the two parties got more bought-up and essentially pushed Nader farther and farther out of their circles, he eventually popped-out on the outside of the fortified American political system, resulting in a challenge for reentry, a challenge for the presidency in '96 and 2004 but most seriously in the mythic 2000 election.

And it's for that campaign that he's maligned, that his liberalist legacy is tarnished, by those scapegoating sore-losers who ridiculously blame him for Bush's victory. Of course the real blame ought to be put on the nearly three million Americans who voted for him, if that's your route—but that's practically akin to not supporting the troops—or on Al Gore for running a lackluster campaign and being a member of a despicably cowardly party. (To say nothing of Rehnquist, Diebold, etc.) An Unreasonable Man is full of real, stinging criticisms of the Democratic Party that are hard to rebuke aside from the familiar Democratic line to misbehaving liberals: "shut up and do what you're told." But as the film establishes, Nader voters ain't misbehavin', just saving their love for a candidate who actually shares their sociopolitical beliefs.

The "lesser of two evils" philosophy, as Nader explains, merely allows the two parties to get more evil every four years. The two party system is simply bad for democracy, and even arch-conservative Pat Buchanan, for whom the Republican Party got too centrist, admits on camera, "our democracy's a fraud." Nader is not so prone to exaggeration as to claim that there is no difference between the Democrats and Republicans, but he does aptly characterize them as "one corporate party with two heads" and identify that the differences are relatively minor, at least from his valid viewpoint. "They killed him for saying there's not a dime's worth of difference between the parties," Phil Donahue explains, "and then the Democrats spent the next four years proving that he was right." Don't let's forget that the Iraq War was a bipartisan initiative. The argument that Nader cost Gore the election is intellectually disingenuous bullshit, and Nader himself explains it best when he says, "I...believe Al Gore cost me the election." It's that glib attitude that really gets the detractors aflame, though, but the film's two most prominent critics—Tood Gitlin of the Columbia School of Journalism (Ivy League/Ivory Tower) and obnoxious columnist Eric Alterman of the hit-or-miss magazine The Nation—come off as nothing less than douchebags, inflating their personal dislike of Nader to gargantuan proportions, nearly characterizing him as being just as bad as Bush.

"Gore's gotta earn his votes," someone remarks in the film and there's no honest rebuttal to that save to blindly dismiss it, as Alterman does; nearly three million of-age Americans thought that Gore and Bush (there's little evidence other than "popular wisdom" that Nader voters were merely Gore voters behaving irresponsibly, and some that actually indicates that he inspired people to vote who would otherwise have not) did not represent them and they actively voted against them, in suit, and for a better America; Nader did not trick them or drug them, but allowed them to make educated adult decisions. That kind of thinking scares the shit out of line-toeing party faithful. Kerry couldn't beat Bush either; was that Nader's fault, too? (He only received Pat Buchanan levels of votes in that one.) Or merely evidence that the Democrats are full of shit?

Mantell and Skrovan edit the debate about the 2000 election section of the film as a rapid back-and-forth argumentative conversation between the sides, like the comments section of a blog but with animated faces. There are, however, valid criticisms of Nader, outside of the infamous election, that the film acknowledges, though mostly tacitly; there's an implication, perhaps a bit aggrandizing, that increased corporate involvement in the political sphere is a backlash against Nader, a direct result of he and his team's regulatory efforts, at once making Nader heroic and quasi-culpable for the unfortunate and pernicious state we find America in today. Although you could hardly blame Nader for that unintended effect; perhaps more blameworthy, however, is the fact that his admittedly controversial politicking led to real world detriment for his various non-profit organizations, which had a hell of a hard time, despite their attempts at establishing distance from him, raising money following his publicized presidential bids. It could possibly be argued that he did more damage to the cause by crippling Public Citizen's fundraising capabilities than he did good by running for president.

But Nader isn't concerned with such debates—at least not on camera, as the film reveals—because he is an idealist, perhaps even naive. "He's a terrible actor because he's authentic," remarks Mark Green, public advocate and clear Nader disciple (though who's also another Democrat who can't win an election.) Nader sincerely believes in the "American myth", inasmuch as he believes it's no myth at all but could be a reality. There's something undeniably attractive and encouraging about that kind of hope and optimistic sincerity, and An Unreasonable Man makes a convincing argument for Ralph Nader's rectitude, a deservingly glowing portrait with warts-and-all that is about as good as video talking head documentaries get. Nader's a self-declared "full-time citizen" and, like it or not, the world he's trying to create is exactly what democracy looks like.


Clayton L. White said...

You've gotta love Ralph Nader. I've always thought of him as the Robert Altman of politicians. He's unafraid to stand up and speak about subjects that matter to him, he is unwilling to give up and conform the way that most(all) politicians are, and because of this, he's often criticized and singled out. Thankfully for us, he seems to be above such nagging bullshit, and he takes it in stride and pushes on. We could use more Ralph Nader's in this country.

Anonymous said...

He and Altman are definitely both iconoclasts. There are a bunch, though, of iconoclastic filmmakers whereas in the political sphere there's only one Ralph Nader! (Excepting a few congresspeople, but who ever hears about them?)

Anonymous said...

The real culprit with Nader is the election system itself which allows for "spoilers". However, in his own failure to speak out about this and to insistently promote election reforms like Instant Runoff Voting, he makes himself complicit.

I was upset that this issue wasn't touched on in the film and wrote about it at Instant Runoff Voting Excluded: An Unreasonable Omission from An Unreasonable Man. Hope you will check it out and add it to your view of Nader that is given in the movie.