Review: ‘An Unreasonable Man’

Crusading consumer advocate Ralph Nader's extraordinary career is thoughtfully chronicled in "An Unreasonable Man." A basically admiring if critical portrait, docu by Henriette Mantel and Stephen Skrovan finds more than enough absorbing material to hold interest through nearly three-hour runtime.

Crusading consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s extraordinary career — and the recent Presidential campaigns that cast a pall over it — are thoughtfully chronicled in “An Unreasonable Man.” A basically admiring if critical portrait, docu by Henriette Mantel and Stephen Skrovan (strangely, both standup comics and TV comedy writer-producers) finds more than enough absorbing material to hold interest through nearly three-hour runtime. Straightforward PBS-style effort will be most at home on the small screen.

Hewing mostly to a chronological structure, pic at first jumps around a bit, glimpsing Nader’s controversial last few years, skipping back to his first whistle-blowing triumphs in the early- to mid-1960s, then rewinding all the way to his small-town Connecticut upbringing under the wing of a father who imbued his children with the problem-solving, community-minded assurance that “you can fight City Hall.” Resulting activist strain was visible in Ralph early on.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, a friend’s near-fatal car wreck led him toward investigation of the U.S. auto industry. Nader recognized that cost-cutting design flaws and lack of safety equipment were the true culprit in many traffic accidents. When his book “Unsafe at Any Speed” came out in 1965, it caused a public furor that had immediate effect, drastically improvingauto safety.

Hoping to discredit him, General Motors had Nader spied on and harassed, even trying sexual entrapment. (Unfortunately for them, Nader is a workaholic whose love life remains a mystery — if it exists at all — to even his closest allies.) A subsequent $425,000 invasion-of-privacy settlement ironically provided him seed money for even more sweeping investigations of corporate and governmental malfeasance.

While Nader’s accomplishments are many, his is a personality that turns away personal glory while tempting accusations of megalomania. Many collegiate “Nader’s Raiders” who cut their teeth under his leadership then moved on to public office felt the sting of his criticism when their attempts to stir positive change within the compromise-driven cronyism of D.C. politics failed to meet his exacting standards.

Feeling the two-party system had turned into a one-sided monopoly, Nader ran for president in 1996, 2000 and 2004. When Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in the bitterly contested 2000 election, much rage was directed toward Nader for “stealing” votes that might otherwise have gone to the Demos. Four years later, when Nader ran again, few liberals still bought his notion that changing the overall party system trumped choosing the lesser evil.

While the overall portrait is of a man whose unbending sense of moral imperative can be both admirable and exasperating, the filmmakers clearly hope Nader’s rep and accomplishments can re-emerge from the ill-will his political campaigns have generated. (Co-helmer Mantel worked with Nader in the late 1970s.)

Mix of archival footage and contemporary interviews is given a smooth editorial shape; other contribs are pro if undistinguished.

An Unreasonable Man

Production

A Two Left Legs production. Produced by Kevin O'Donnell. Executive producers, Henriette Mantel, Stephen Skrovan. Directed by Henriette Mantel, Stephen Skrovan.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Mark Raker; Leigh Wilson, John Chater, Matt Davis, Steve Elkins, Melissa Donovan, Sandra Chandler; editors, Alexis Provost, Beth Gallagher; music, Joe Kraemer; sound, Craig Clark; researchers, Elizabeth Olson, Ellie Knaus. Reviewed at Sundance Film Fest (competing), Jan. 24, 2006. Running time: 158 MIN.

With

Ralph Nader, Jay Acton, Theresa Amato, Pat Buchanan, Peter Camejo, Scott Carter, Joan Claybrook, John Conyers, Jr., Karen Croft, Phil Donahue, James Fallows, Michael Feinstein, Todd Gitlin, Richard Grossman, Greg Kafoury, Jason Kafoury, Carl Mayer, Tarek Milleron, Morton Mintz, Ross Mirkarimi, Jim Musselman, Claire Nader, Laura Nader, Bryce Nelson, James Ridgeway, Harvey Rosenfield, Donald Ross, Rob Weissman, Dr. Sidney Wolfe.
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