The success of the 2006 midterm elections may have tempered Democrats’ long-held grudge against Ralph Nader, but “An Unreasonable Man” is set to reopen the nasty wounds left from his quixotic 2000 presidential campaign, when several hundred votes for the Green Party candidate arguably cost the Dems Florida and thus, lest we forget, the election. Whether Nader was right to run or just downright delusional and ultimately destructive to the liberal cause is the controversial heart of the matter in this content-over-form documentary. It’s apt that the first 35 years of its subject’s unrivaled career of progressive advocacy – from “Unsafe at Any Speed” to becoming the consumer rights champion – are discussed for approximately an hour of screen time while the 2000 presidential race and the subsequent fallout matches that duration.
“How do you define a legacy?” “An Unreasonable Man” rhetorically asks its viewers in the hopes of convincing them of the fallacious foundations of anti-Ralph sentiment. But in spending so much time dwelling on one regrettable moment in history – when the viability of a third party for the well-being of true democracy was set back decades – filmmakers Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan unintentionally answer their own question. It’s like a documentary on Bill Buckner spending as much time on the first baseman’s ’86 Game Six goof as on his 2700 hits and then trying to sell the piece as an image “corrective.”
And just as anyone with even a passing interest in baseball knows, the Red Sox’s collapse wasn’t solely Buckner’s fault (though as a Mets fan I couldn’t care less considering the end result), so does anyone who can get beyond the cliches and myths of politics understand that Nader bears not a shred of responsibility for what happened in ’00. “An Unreasonable Man” proves that once and for all, citing the Gore campaign’s incompetence; the media’s dismissal of Nader and then its hypocritical turnaround of citing him as a “factor”; and the very real need the Green Party answered for a candidate addressing progressive issues (though it leaves out one crucial possibility-that the Bush team may very well have cheated to win). Even if it’s structured as a numbing talking-heads fest, and even if its points will most likely be illogically blocked out by many of the film’s potential converts, “An Unreasonable Man” gets an A for effort as a thinly masked public relations tool.
Meanwhile, Nader leads by example. While those both for and against the unreasonable man wail over the measure of his contribution to the Bush victory more than six years ago, Ralph keeps doing what he’s doing, fighting the good fight with or without help from the like-minded souls now wary to associate with him. The saddest aspect of “An Unreasonable Man” is the ample evidence the film provides of liberals who jumped ship or abandoned their principles after 2000 in a rush to distance themselves from Nader. Now that happy days are here again with a majority House, are they better or worse for waiting out a Republican debacle rather than actually playing to win-that is, creating a progressive agenda a la Nader? Beyond all else, “An Unreasonable Man” confirms Nader’s unpopular idealism still makes his cynical naysayers look foolish, no matter how much they wish to cheapen his principles.