Judge Mike MacNeil asks you not to write in his name in the 2008 presidential race.
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one
persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends
on the unreasonable man."
An Unreasonable Man is a candid look at Ralph Nader, a man who manages to be an outspoken public figure and an enigma at the same time. This documentary offers a soapbox to Nader's supporters (past and present), detractors, and Nader himself, all of which adds up to a detailed portrait of the man's history and his character. It also accomplishes the feat of keeping it interesting, even at a two-hours-plus running time.
Facts of the Case
In his early years as a hotshot lawyer, Ralph Nader was known for his grassroots consumer advocacy. He inspired others to action and prompted serious legislative change, all while fearlessly standing up to corporations that had every intention of keeping him down. Oh, and he ran for president a few times, too.
Ah, the political documentary. It's almost a contradiction in terms; documentaries strive to present their subjects from a passive, objective viewpoint, while most media related to politics is prone to persuading its audience, sometimes to the point of being propaganda. Can An Unreasonable Man overcome the contradiction? Yes. Yes, it can.
The film, directed by Steve Skrovan and Henriette Mantel, is really more of a character study than anything else. Most of the contributors seem fascinated with Nader, with good reason. He's apparently been the driving force behind every initiative from nuclear power plant safety to the Highway Safety Act to the inception of Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The list goes on and on, and it's even more mind-boggling coming from the mouths of people like Pat Buchanan; one of the most memorable moments comes when Buchanan admits that he doesn't believe in American democracy.
An Unreasonable Man doesn't heap praise upon Nader, though. Instead, it allows his story to be told from the perspective of the people who experienced his work firsthand. In some cases, the filmmakers skip the storytelling and just show Nader at work. Footage of Nader calmly reasoning with an angry state trooper is particularly effective. When the trooper first arrives on the scene, he's prepared to haul Nader away in handcuffs. By the end of their exchange, both men are smiling and joking with one another.
This pleasant retrospective of Nader's accomplishments hums along until the final third of the film, when the topic shifts to Nader's three presidential bids, especially the 2000 campaign. It was the turning point of his career. People who had collaborated with him in the early days refused to support him. Nader was laughed at by some for having the gall to run as a third-party candidate; he was frequently deemed responsible for the Democrats' loss.
The neat trick that An Unreasonable Man pulls is that it presents both sides of that story without forcing either of them down your throat. The filmmakers clearly favor Nader, but they give screen time to some really severe criticism of their subject. Yes, people who voted for Nader probably would have been more likely to vote for Al Gore or John Kerry than for George W. Bush. By presenting himself as a viable presidential candidate, Nader effectively took votes away from Democrats.
Hearing him talk about that ensuing public backlash is interesting. He's genuinely puzzled at the way he's managed to upset people. He explains that he entered the race to talk about issues that weren't being discussed and to challenge the idea of a strictly two-party system. The documentary allows contributors to suggest that Nader is an egomaniac, but given all the knowledge of his prior public life (and, apparently, complete lack of a private life), it's hard to accept that Nader ran for president as a matter of pride.
The disc boasts an exhaustive collection of extras. Disc One has a collection of deleted scenes that didn't belong in the movie, but are all worth watching for anyone who wants more. Disc Two is all extras, with featurettes titled "Profile of a Charismatic Leader," "What Kind of President Would Ralph Nader Be?," "Debating the Role of the Two-Party System in America," "What Happened to the Democratic Party?," "Why is the Right Better Organized Than The Left?," "Ralph Nader on the Iraq War," and "A Debate on Corporate Power in America." The extras allow the talking heads from the documentary, many of whom are experts in politics and public policy, to dig more deeply into the big issues that the feature presentation only touches on. This is when it really becomes clear that these contributors must have been sitting in front of that camera for hours.
"What Kind of President Would Ralph Nader Be?" and "Ralph Nader on the War in Iraq" allow Nader to present his campaign platform. Even after losing two elections, he still really comes to life when he starts to give the same speech he must have given hundreds of times on the campaign trail.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's a small quibble, but the audio level seems to jump up and down between the quick cuts to the different interviewees. In one brief segment on one of the special features ("Profile of a Charismatic Leader"), there's no sound at all.
Ralph Nader's role in consumer advocacy has been forgotten by a lot of people. For some of us, those accomplishments took place before our time. An Unreasonable Man would be worthwhile even if all it did was to shine a light on an illustrious career. But it goes a step further, examining how a maverick like Nader fits in to the political landscape in Washington, D.C.
Ralph Nader has taken on the likes of General Motors and MasterCard in court, and won. Things are no different in this court. Not guilty.
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