Last year's surprise hit An Inconvenient Truth accomplished the formidable feat of rehabilitating Al Gore's public image after a disastrous 2000 presidential run where he lost what should have been an easy lay-up of an election. The riveting new documentary An Unreasonable Man looks to do the same for Ralph Nader, though it's far from puff-piece hagiography. Had Nader died in 1999, he'd be lionized as a crusading consumer activist who single-handedly made the world a better, safer place through his tireless campaigns against corporate chicanery and unsafe products. But Nader instead allowed hubristic 2000 and 2004 Presidential bids that tarnish his formidable legacy. The progressive left that used to deify Nader turned on him with shocking bitterness.
An Unreasonable Man explores his complicated, contradictory life and career, from his humble origins to national and international fame as a fearless David bravely taking on corporate Goliaths. Directors Henriette Mantel (a one-time Nader employee) and Steve Skrovan offer a sympathetic, multidimensional look at Nader's legacy, littered with neat bits of pop ephemera like clips of Nader's appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Mike Douglas Show (opposite John Lennon and Yoko Ono, no less). The film's second half deals extensively with Nader's disastrous 2000 presidential campaign and his subsequent demonization by the left. Nader's presidential bid comes off as both deeply inspirational and depressingly counterproductive, an epic folly in which the best of intentions led to the worst of outcomes. The filmmakers clearly admire Nader, but they give ample screen time to enraged critics like Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin, both of whom seem to nurse a deeply personal hatred of the film's larger-than-life yet strangely monk-like subject.
An Unreasonable Man develops into a spellbinding cautionary tale about the dangers of purity and the ugly necessity of compromise and pragmatism. The steely determination and messianic sense of purpose that fueled Nader's meteoric rise also led to his very public fall from grace. The film begins like a Frank Capra movie—pure-hearted idealist takes on corporate fat cats against impossible odds and triumphs—but ends like a Shakespearean tragedy.