When, in her final column, Molly Ivins called for the people to get out in the streets, bang pots and pans and raise hell, lefties all over the country responded with tributes and clarion calls to heed her message. Meanwhile, for more than six years, many of these same self-described liberals have excoriated the most accomplished and tenacious hell-raiser of them all, Public Pot-and-Pan-Banger Number One, Ralph Nader.
An Unreasonable Man, a new documentary opening this weekend at Shattuck Cinemas in downtown Berkeley, examines the career of the controversial consumer advocate-turned-presidential candidate, giving much needed context and perspective to a lifetime of public service.
The film argues that it has almost become axiomatic, despite much evidence to the contrary, that Nader cost Al Gore the 2000 election, his 19,000 votes in Florida spanning the 537-vote differential between Gore and Bush many times over. The inconvenient truth of the matter, however, is that there were 10 third-party candidates on the Florida ballot and every one of them received more than 537 votes. And nation-wide, more than 10 million registered Democrats forsook Gore in favor of Bush. Mean while Nader, once a left-wing hero, became a pariah almost overnight, trashed by progressives for defending the very same values and truths for which they claimed to stand. Finally, Democrats could speak with one voice.
An Unreasonable Man documents the efforts, from both the right and the left, to undermine Nader and his causes, from General Motors’ blundering attempts to smear him in the 1960s as well as the more concerted and successful maneuvers by the Republican and Democratic parties to keep him from even attending, much less participating in, the presidential debates. For the most part it’s a simple and straightforward film, presenting the views of Nader’s supporters as well as his opponents, including many who once counted themselves among the former but have since joined the latter. But, even though directors Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan have ostensibly attempted to present a balanced portrait of Nader’s career with the intent of letting the viewer make his own evaluations of the man and his record, at times they tip their hand, revealing their own sympathetic views. For instance, towards the end of the film, as Nader, in an interview, gives voice to the principles that drive him, the directors find it impossible to resist the urge to back his words with a soaring, patriotic score.
But for the most part the filmmakers are able to stay in the background and simply let their subjects do the talking. And they do plenty. Journalist Eric Alterman says it’s time Nader left the country; he’s done enough damage here. Phil Donahue takes issue with those who criticized Nader for claiming in 2000 that there wasn’t a dime’s bit of difference between the two political parties; the Democrats then spent the next six years proving him right, Donahue says, caving in to the Bush administration’s every whim. Some former Nader’s Raiders say their erstwhile leader has lost his way; others consider the man an American hero.
Among the more humorous moments are the appearances of Michael Moore, a man who has made a name for himself with films in which he juxtaposes bits of footage to reveal the hypocrisy of those he targets. Here the tables are turned as we see Moore campaigning for Nader in 2000, asking his audience “If you don’t vote your conscience now, when will you start?”, then spinning 180 degrees around by 2004 to chastise those who took his advice, equating a vote for Nader as a transitory moment of pleasure that can only lead to a lifetime of pain.
One of the more fascinating dynamics that have arisen from Nader’s clash with his one-time loyalists is the pressure that has been brought to bear on the many public interest organizations he has founded. Some of these groups have found it more difficult to do their work; fundraising and outreach efforts have suffered due to the diminished reputation of their figurehead, who, in many cases, is no longer even involved with these groups. It’s ironic that former President Jimmy Carter should count himself among Nader’s critics, as a similar effect was repeated recently with the publication of Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Just as some of Nader’s colleagues feel their work has been hindered by his political campaigns, the backlash against Carter’s book led to the resignation of several Carter Center staffers who felt Carter’s decision to speak his mind on the Israel-Palestine conflict undermined the efforts of the center to continue its role as a mediator and non-partisan monitor of elections in the Middle East.
It’s an interesting question: Should one pursue one’s long-term goals even when that strategy jeopardizes one’s own short-term tactics? Both men are acting on the principle that truth always wins out, no matter the immediate consequences, and that ultimately history will rule in their favor. And both seem secure in the knowledge that their legacies, far from being tarnished by these actions, will one day be defined by them.
AN UNREASONABLE MAN
Directed by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan. 122 minutes. Not rated. Playing at Shattuck Cinemas.
Photograph: Consumer advocate-turned-presidential candidate Ralph Nader is the subject of
An Unreasonable Man, a new documentary by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan.