AN UNREASONABLE MAN ssss
Directed by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan
With Ralph Nader, Todd Gitlin, Eric Alterman, Phil Donahue, James Ridgeway, Joan Claybrook, David Bollier, Mark Green, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Pat Buchanan
WHEN Opens Fri 3/2
WHERE Music Box, 3733 N. Southport
MORE Skrovan will attend the 7 PM Saturday screening; Nader will take part in a live video conference afterward.
I still remember an argument I got into with a coworker when we were working a promo booth at the Old Town School’s summer musical festival in July 2000. I told her I was voting for Ralph Nader, and she tried to talk me out of it. “Do you really want to wind up casting a vote for George Bush?” she asked. Tipping back in my metal folding chair, I replied, “How much worse could he be than Gore?” I’ve been wrong before.
Henriette Mantel and Steven Skrovan’s thoroughly involving documentary An Unreasonable Man is guaranteed to restart all those arguments. Though filled with talking heads and clocking in at two full hours, it chronicles a fascinating American life, and its two-part structure explicitly balances Nader’s phenomenal achievements as a public-interest advocate and his controversial runs for the presidency in 2000 and 2004. Pissed-off liberals Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman denounce him as a megalomaniac and traitor to his own cause; longtime friends and associates describe him as reluctant to run for office, driven only by conscience and frustration with the Democratic Party’s sellout to corporate interests. Through it all Nader, as ruefully funny as ever, comments on his adventures. By the end of the movie Mantel and Skrovan manage to put any progressive voter in a bind: if you’re not willing to vote based on real beliefs, why should your representatives be expected to act on them?
When Nader ran in 2000 I welcomed any alternative to four more years of Clinton-Gore accommodation; Al Gore’s role in ramming through the 1996 Telecommunications Act, a big gift to corporate media, had proved he couldn’t be trusted. Only Nader was talking about economic justice: corporate welfare, the health care divide, wage inequity–all of which have since become effective issues for the left. After 9/11 and the fiasco in Iraq I bought the Democratic Party line and voted for Kerry in 2004. And now the same Democratic strategy is shaping Hillary Clinton’s candidacy: a safe and soulless lunge for the center, with progressive voters ordered to shut up and get in line.
As Mantel and Skrovan demonstrate in the documentary’s first half, Ralph Nader has never been one to get in line. A Connecticut native who graduated from Harvard Law, he made a name for himself in 1959 with a piece in the Nation about auto safety, and his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed catapulted him into the national spotlight. His story is rich in irony: after the Washington Post reported that General Motors was spying on him, the corporation was publicly upbraided in televised Senate hearings, and the $425,000 Nader collected from GM in the subsequent civil suit provided the seed money for a series of investigations of food safety, drug safety, workplace safety, petroleum pricing, and air pollution. The young activists he collected around him, nicknamed Nader’s Raiders by the press, turned out book after influential book on how government agencies were failing the public. As Democratic strategist Mark Green points out in the movie, Nader’s career accomplishments as a private citizen–not the least of which are regulations governing seat belts and air bags–would be the envy of some presidents.
Yet as the movie reminds us, Nader can be brusque and self-righteous–tiresome qualities in a leader. Jimmy Carter met with him in Plains after the 1976 election and appointed his colleague Joan Claybrook head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Adminstration, but when Claybrook counseled patience on getting air-bag legislation through Congress, Nader blasted her publicly. Interviewed now about the incident, he dismisses personal loyalty as “unadulterated, mawkish sentiment while people are dying on the highway.” His dream of a consumer protection agency also crashed on the rocks, and the Reagan revolution brought a full-frontal assault on government regulation that dismantled many of his legislative achievements. Stymied in Washington, Nader reinvented himself as a grassroots activist, barnstorming around the country and growing ever more disillusioned with the two-party system. “I’m a 20-year veteran of pursuing the folly of the least worst between the two parties,” he says of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years. “When you do that you’re allowing them to get worse.”
An Unreasonable Man is briskly edited, telling Nader’s story through an assortment of incisive personal observations, and that story gathers urgency in the second half, after he agrees to run for president on the Green Party ticket in 2000. Though his “superrallies” drew huge crowds across the country (20,000 people turned out to hear him at Madison Square Garden), Nader was elbowed out of the debates. A student gave him a ticket to watch the first debate inside the grounds of the University of Massachusetts on a remote screen, but the corporate-funded Commission on Presidential Debates had the state police escort him off the premises, a scene captured on video. Gore’s slim margin of defeat in Florida (537 votes) and Nader’s 97,421 votes in the same state have made Nader a pariah in Democratic circles, and the filmmakers couldn’t have found a better pair of attack dogs than Gitlin and Alterman, writers I usually respect. Alterman lays at Nader’s feet all the outrages of the Bush administration–the war, the tax cuts, the assaults on the environment and civil liberties–as if Nader had signed the bills himself.
It’s the same line I got from all my liberal friends in 2000–a vote for Nader was a vote for Bush–and its logic still eludes me. Gore aimed for the political center and couldn’t eke out a victory in the electoral college after eight years as vice president–how is that Nader’s fault? And why are voters who turned out for Nader presumed to be Gore’s property? “If you don’t show them you’re capable of not voting for them they don’t have to listen to you,” says TV commentator Lawrence O’Donnell, who spent seven years as a Democratic chief of staff on Capitol Hill. “I didn’t listen or have to listen to anything on the left while I was working in the Democratic Party–because the left had nowhere to go.” The terror attacks on 9/11 may have radically rewritten the political rule book in America, but if anything, the Democrats’ cautious half measures on the Iraq war since winning back the Congress only prove that Nader was right all along.
In retrospect I regret voting for Kerry in 2004 more than voting for Nader in 2000, because all my strategic vote did was endorse the party’s middle-of-the-road routine. Now we can all look forward to another doomed centrist Democrat being crowned in the money primary, unless Barack Obama manages to turn his can-do rhetoric into actual progressive policy. Smarter Democrats, such as Jim Webb of Virginia and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, picked up on the economic justice issues Nader fought so hard to keep before the public, but the people victimized by corporate control of the federal government can’t afford to vote in the money primary, and their vote isn’t important to Democrats unless they threaten to “throw it away” on a long-shot candidate. Let me see if I can make the wastebasket from here.
For more on movies, see our blog On Film at chicagoreader.com.