The people's pariah

New doc asks you to take a broad look at Ralph Nader


If you’re still hating on Ralph Nader for “throwing” the 2000 election, the new documentary An Unreasonable Man lets you work out that anger in its first five minutes. A quickly edited barrage of talking heads lets you hear just about every insult anyone’s ever spouted on the bellowing, heavy-browed beanpole from Connecticut: “Thank you, Ralph, for the Iraq war ...” and “No one in the history of the world is on a bigger ego trip ...” etc., etc. Perhaps most memorably, Phil Donahue flips him the bird.

Of course, Donahue and some of the others are among the Nader faithful, recounting statements we’ve heard ever since that cold November night, when just a few hundred swing-state votes from anyone determined the ultra-conservative course of America for years to come. If there’s an overarching goal to An Unreasonable Man, it’s to undo Nader’s status as a left-wing pariah. To the man’s fans — the ones who watched him grow from a scrappy author of a bestselling auto-safety exposé to one of the staunchest advocates for the rights of the American people — it’s unfathomable that his name would be synonymous with “mud” right about now, at the age when most would be welcoming fawning 60 Minutes profiles.

In many ways, Henriette Mantel and Stephan Skrovan’s two-hour jog through the man’s 73 years is one of those gushing, golden-years biographies, cataloguing his achievements, taking stock of his legacy and making it seem as though running for president were the next logical step for a man whose purpose in life was to champion the disenfranchised. The entire second hour of the film concentrates on the myriad reasons Nader-haters are wrong for saying he should have bowed out, softened his message, or gone easy on the Democrats in ’00 and ’04.

For all the voices in the film, however, none speaks as strongly as Nader’s. The man is one of the most tenacious debaters who ever walked the earth, whether he’s questioning the worth of electing the lesser of two evils or caught on tape arguing with security to let him into the ’00 debates, if only as a spectator.

It’s clear that An Unreasonable Man is made from a position of great love. The filmmakers have pored through some fantastic archival footage, and tracked down fascinating interview subjects. Unfortunately, their technique as documentarians is lacking. A treacly score undermines the film’s objectivity, as do cheesy graphics and digitally animated stills in which the backgrounds morph into a different shot. After a while, you start to wish Mantel and Skrovan would just throw the few opposing viewpoints out the window and make The Nader Show, the same way Errol Morris did with Robert McNamara in the superlative Fog of War. When you’ve got a subject this great, and a career this far-reaching, it’s best to just get out of the way and let him talk.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 19, and at 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, April 20-21. Ralph Nader appears after the Thursday showing to answer questions from the audience. Call 313-833-3237.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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