Few people have influenced public policy the way Ralph Nader has in a career that spans more than four decades. The documentary, An Unreasonable Man, is a powerful, inspirational, and yes – sometimes critical, examination of his life that catalogs a number of his accomplishments working on behalf of the public interest in pursuit of social justice.
It begins with a discussion of his efforts on automobile safety in the 1960s and details how General Motors investigated him in an attempt to destroy his character. Not only did federal officials expose this effort in a congressional hearing (of which there is actual footage), but Nader also won a lawsuit against the company that provided “seed money” for him to found some of his organizations.
From there, the film briefly explores his childhood. Nader grew up in Winsted, Connecticut where he learned some invaluable lessons during his formative years. At home, his parents encouraged political debates at the dinner table. Also, he recalls coming home from school one day and his father asking him: “Did you learn how to believe or did you learn how to think?” All of this is important because his early life is reflected in the thoughtful, outspoken advocate he evolved into.
Among the film’s strengths are the interviews with former employees. Some of their accounts reveal how committed, i.e. rigid, he can be on both a political and a personal level. For example, when an employee of his, Joan Claybrook, accepted a position in the Carter Administration and did not seek to advance his agenda, this greatly angered him and resulted in them not speaking for a year or two.
While coverage is devoted to how Nader felt betrayed by President Carter (on the matter of consumer protection) and how President Reagan sought to undermine a series of regulations Nader had fought so hard for in years prior, the film could have focused more on his experience in the 1990s during the Clinton years leading up to the 2000 Election.
Much to the dismay of some on the left, Nader ran for president in 2000. While his candidacy did not receive the attention or respect it deserved (e.g. media coverage; the denial to partake in, or even attend, a debate at University of Massachusetts, Boston), Democrats blamed him when Al Gore lost by a slim margin. A political analyst points out this contradiction. Interestingly, the directors also interview Barry Burden, a political scientist at Harvard University (he now teaches at University of Wisconsin, Madison) whose statistical analysis does not find any evidence that Nader is the “spoiler” Democrats claim that he is.
The greatest message this film communicates is that Nader’s level of commitment is a model of advanced citizenship for others to follow, and that people can make a contribution if they engage the democratic process. Many of his contributions have affected our everyday lives. That said, it is also a strong indictment of a two-party system that must be opened to alternative voices.