(2006) Documentary (IFC) Ralph Nader, Howard Zinn, Pat Buchanan, Phil Donohue, Joan Claybrook, David Bollier, Mark Green, Andrew Egendorf, Laura Nader, Claire Nader, Richard Grossman, Lawrence O’Donnell, William Greider, James Ridgeway, Gene Karpinski. Directed by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan
Ralph Nader may go down in history as one of the most polarizing figures of the 20th century (and of the 21st as well). In the early stages of his career, he was a tireless advocate for consumers. He took on corporate entities and governmental agencies alike on such crusades as automobile safety, clean air and water, and airline safety. The corporate right hate him like poison and had he stuck to advocacy as he did in the 70s and 80s, he might well be remembered as the greatest consumer advocate of all time.
However, unsatisfied with affecting change from without and feeling betrayed by the Carter administration, he made the decision to attempt to make change from within. Feeling the two major political parties were virtually indistinguishable from one another, he took a different road, finally settling on the Green Party (a political party which got its start in Europe where it remains far more popular than it is here) as his platform of choice. So in 2000, he ran as an independent candidate against Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.
The rest, as they say, was history. Gore lost by a narrow margin and we wound up with a president who gave us the Iraq War and the economic meltdown of 2008. There are many pundits of the left who believe that the story would have been entirely different if the votes that Nader received had gone to Gore instead.
Which quite frankly is sour grapes. Gore lost the election at least as much for his failure to effectively establish himself as legitimate presidential material; I remember all the late night talk show jokes likening the former Vice-President as wooden, stiff and humorless. People had trouble relating to him and his campaign failed to motivate younger voters to come out and vote as Obama did in 2008. I myself didn’t vote for Gore, mainly because of his wife Tipper’s involvement with the Parental Music Resource Committee which seemed hell-bent on the censorship of rock and roll and be damned with the constitution. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that distrust.
This documentary covers his career, essentially dividing it up into his advocacy years and his political years. The look is unflinching; while his achievements are praised, Nader himself is portrayed as an inflexible sort who is self-assured that he is right, no matter what. He finds compromise to be an anathema and prefers shaping the world to his point of view – which is where the title of the film comes from, a quote from George Bernard Shaw which reads “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.” Nader certainly defines this.
Over and over again we see instances where Nader sees things in terms of black and white. There are no shades of grey in his world view. People are either with him or against him; he obviously takes very personally the defection of some of the young advocates who were part of the group he assembled that were affectionately known as “Nader’s Raiders” to government service, which at the time he felt was an ineffective means of forcing change. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that he eventually concluded to take this course himself.
Nader is by all accounts a brilliant man, albeit occasionally infuriating. He has a legacy of legislation that any lawmaker could envy. He also is, perhaps unfairly, blamed for the ascension of Dubya to the White House. That the latter is what may wind up being his more enduring legacy may be one of the most myopic turns by the left ever. The documentary does address that, but at a shade over two hours in length may have people hitting the fast forward button or ejecting the disc more than they will be riveted by the content of the film.
WHY RENT THIS: Remarkably even-handed and fair look at an American icon who often raises very extreme reactions in both followers and critics.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags in places and might have been too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Co-director Henriette Mantel was a former protégé of Nader’s.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a number of bonus featurettes that have to do more with the discussion of the political issues that have accompanied Nader’s career, from how third parties have affected American politics to why the right is better organized than the left. For an indie documentary this is an unusually sumptuous presentation.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $176,647 on an unreported production budget; this may have broken even or even made a little bit of cash.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Watch