News & Politics

Is Ralph Nader an Unreasonable Man?

A new documentary directed by Steve Skrovan and Henriette Mantel asks viewers to decide whether Nader was a man of principle or a man who fell behind the times.
What Is Ralph Nader's Legacy? An Unreasonable Man tries to answer this question as it chronicles Ralph Nader's life and career as a public interest attorney, consumer advocate, and presidential candidate. The two-hour documentary opens with a George Bernard Shaw quote: "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." This is the theme the film is intent on proving -- that Nader is a man of uncompromising principles and it is those principles that have guided his decisions throughout his career.

The first scene shows Nader announcing his 2004 presidential candidacy followed by James Carville's response, claiming that there was no other person on the face of the earth for whom he had greater contempt than Nader. Nation magazine columnist Eric Alterman proceeds to thank Nader for the Iraq war, the tax cuts, the destruction of the environment and the destruction of the Constitution. Alterman and journalism professor Todd Gitlin later describe Nader as a "megalomaniac" and "intellectually dishonest," among other things. Ouch.

Clearly, many people blame Nader as the reason Al Gore lost the election in 2000, and they were even angrier when he decided to run again in 2004. Directors Steve Skrovan and Henriette Mantel, who formerly worked for Nader in the late '70s, set out to remind us of his career as an unparalleled advocate for consumer protection and to examine whether Nader deserves to be the Democrats' scapegoat.

Over the years, Nader has crafted a stunning track record on behalf of consumers, including the establishment of government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the passage of landmark legislation, including automobile safety laws, the Freedom of Information Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as the founding of numerous public interest organizations. He and his various public interest organizations have been responsible for numerous consumer protections, such as making air bags and seatbelts standard car features and product labeling de rigueur.

The most fascinating part of the film begins with his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, which exposed the lack of safety in the design of the Corvair, a car manufactured by General Motors. We see clips from the Congressional hearings that resulted from the book's publication. And we learn that he successfully sued General Motors for invasion of privacy when the corporation hired detectives to find information that could damage his reputation. However, they didn't find anything -- to this day his personal life remains a mystery even to his friends -- and he used the settlement money for future advocacy work. Nader's storied career as a consumer activist was launched.

His work inspired scores of college students (dubbed Nader's Raiders) to work for him and write reports on a plethora of consumer issues ranging from water pollution to the FDA's weak oversight of the food industry. Archival footage of enthusiastic students offers a glimpse of how inspiring Nader was. Many former Nader's Raiders fondly recollect their experiences working for him.

By the 1970s, he became a cultural icon, appearing on the cover of People magazine and hosting Saturday Night Live. And he became a Washington insider, working with Carter administration. He was so esteemed and trusted that people were writing him from all over the country, asking for his help on any number of things. They believed that he could solve their problems no matter what they were. One woman even sent him the drive shaft to her car in the hopes that he could find a way to fix it.

The film briefly slips back into his childhood growing up in Winston, Connecticut, where Nader family dinners were a time when everyone had to come prepared to discuss that night's assigned topic. Nader recounts that when he was 10 years old his father asked, "Did you learn how to believe or did you learn how to think?" after he came home from school.

Moving quickly through the Reagan years, the documentary attributes the removal of hard-fought consumer laws, deregulation, the rise of corporate power and the Democrats backing away from protecting citizens and embracing corporate money. But it was also a time during which Reagan was embraced not only by Republicans but also by many Democrats. After all, Reagan was dealing with a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate -- something that the film doesn't address.

Then the directors shift to the 2000 election and talk to people critical of Nader's presidential bid as a Green party candidate, including former Nader's Raiders, as well as his supporters. And we see how some of the people who supported Nader in 2000 distanced themselves from him in 2004.

Skrovan says they wanted to recreate the arguments around the four accusations that came up repeatedly in 2000: Nader should have dropped out; he spent too much time in the swing states; he claimed that there wasn't any difference between the Republicans and the Democrats; and he should have worked within the Democratic party. Nader's critics agree with those arguments while his campaign staff and others refute them. The argument goes back and forth and this section gets bogged down in talking heads, especially after the dynamic and inspiring section on the impact of his earlier work.

For many people, Nader's legacy as a veteran consumer activist gets overshadowed by his 2000 and 2004 foray into presidential politics. And the fallout for some of his organizations has been a significant loss of financial support. Public Citizen, the organization he founded in 1971, even went as far as removing his name from its letterhead.

Skrovan (who voted for Gore) admires Nader for never giving in to cynicism and for his unflagging desire to make democracy a reality. An Unreasonable Man presents many opinions through the 40-some interviews and leaves it to us to decide whether he was a man of principle or a man who fell behind the times.

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An Unreasonable Man is currently playing in theaters across the country and on Comcast digital cable as video on demand. For a list of cities and dates, visit //www.anunreasonableman.com/calendar.cfm.

Chuleenan Svetvilas is a freelance writer who lives in Oakland, Calif. Her writings on film have appeared in Dox, Documentary, and Release Print magazines.