An Unreasonable Man
Ralph Nader is an uncompromising man living in a compromised world. He has tilted at windmills and reduced them to rubble. He has scaled beanstalks of corporate skullduggery and slain giants. He has done more for our safety and well-being than most of us can begin to imagine.
Does he also have blood on his hands?
A lot of people think so. This fascinating documentary by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan examines the issues raised by Nader?s runs for the presidency in 2000 and 2004, adventures in righteousness that shone a powerful light into our grubby political shadows, and also played a part in the confluence of events that twice put George W. Bush into the White House.
The Bush Administration has been, by many measures, a disaster for the environment, the nation, and the world. By now, midway through his second term, even many of Bush?s loyalists are peeling away like a bad sunburn. Is it all Ralph Nader?s fault? Hardly. Does he bear any responsibility? Is he the legitimate parent of any demons that might come to disturb his rest in the cold hours before dawn? Possibly.
Nader too has sloughed off former admirers like dead skin. Early in this film Todd Gitlin, an SDS president in the Vietnam years and now a professor of journalism at Columbia University, declares angrily that the part Nader played in the Bush election was ?worse than naive ? it borders on the wicked.? Loyalists counter that many of the votes Nader picked off were from voters who would otherwise have stayed home, that every alternative candidate attracted more votes in Florida than the margin by which Bush took the state, and that anyway Gore won the election and then got jobbed by the Governor of Florida and the Supreme Court.
Mantel and Skovran begin with the Ralph Nader at the center of this controversy, and then dip back in time to remind us of who he was and how he got there. They use rare archival footage and contemporary interviews to build a portrait of a man driven by idealism, outrage, moral certainty, and utter fearlessness to take on the most powerful interests in the world.
His first crusade was triggered by a car crash that nearly took the life of a friend. His book Unsafe at Any Speed: the Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile challenged the auto industry?s slipshod safety practices, and brought about many reforms we now take for granted. GM, then the world?s most powerful corporation, had him followed and harassed, and hired women to try to entrap him sexually. Nader?s lawsuit against the auto giant won him a settlement large enough to bankroll his future investigative operations.
Hordes of idealistic young lawyers flocked to join him, and were dubbed ?Nader?s Raiders.? Some have kept the faith. Others have inevitably drifted away, and some of those are critical of their old boss today. Joe Tom Easley, a retired lawyer and early Raider, admits ?I don?t think there was anything Ralph Nader stood for in his campaign that I didn?t believe in.? But he and scores of his fellow ex-Raiders, believing the country would be devastated by a second Bush term, worked actively to divert Nader votes to Kerry in ?04. Nader dismisses them as ?people who worked for me a long time ago,? implying that they were apostates who had given up on idealism and were now out for themselves.
He has never been charitable to those who have left the fold. Even back in the ?70s, when Joan Claybrook left Nader for a post in the Carter Administration, he staged a public confrontation with her. ?Personal loyalty ? becomes an indulgence,? he declared.
By?04, when the dimensions of the Bush catastrophe had become evident, many other admirers who had campaigned for Nader the first time begged him to stay out of the race. Jimmy Carter urged him to ?go back to examining the rear end of automobiles.? Michael Moore and Bill Maher fell on their knees on television and pleaded with Nader not to run.
Mantel and Skovran, both former stand-up comics, are clearly Nader admirers, but they present a balanced view. Most of the criticism of the man in this film comes from the left, from critics bitter over his enabling of Bush, rather than from the conservatives who have no use for his principles but were delighted to have him in the race.
Nader himself comes across as intelligent, funny, and driven by an idealism so pure that he is not interested in shades of gray. He appears to see himself as a Capra-eque figure, a Mr. Smith in Washington, who dismisses the major political parties as corporate Tweedledums and Tweedledees. Watching how Nader was thuggishly barred from the presidential debates, it is hard not to agree with him.
But the film leaves us to ponder whether being right is enough. The bottom line is the real world, where global warming has flourished and environmental protection has crumbled in this brave new century, where there is blood on the sands of Iraq, and America?s reputation and influence stand at historic lows. Ralph Nader is one of the extraordinary heroes of the last half century; but as his friend Phil Donohue observes, the last part of his legacy will be the first line of his obituary.
© Text 2007 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be