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A net positive for Nader?

Activist Ralph Nader is the subject of the documentary "An Unreasonable Man," showing Wednesday and Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House. (Photo Courtesy Nader Family)
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ASPEN It’s said that it’s possible to sympathize with, or at least understand, anyone if you know the whole story, if all the factors that went into making the person in question were brought to light.In the documentary “An Unreasonable Man,” the person under the microscope is Ralph Nader. To his associates and admirers, Nader has been a tireless activist on the side of the American consumer, taking on polluters, food producers and, most famously, the automobile industry in a principled effort to make a safer world. To his critics, Nader is a thorn in the side of business, whose flaws – an unwillingness to compromise and a tendency toward self-promotion – have upstaged any good intentions.

Those two sides, to a great degree, coalesce in the last half-hour of the documentary, co-directed by Henriette Mantel (who once worked in Nader’s organization) and Steve Skrovan. The extended finalé of “An Unreasonable Man” examines the last two of Nader’s three independent candidacies for president, in 2000 and in 2004.The first campaign, in which he ran against Al Gore and George Bush, prompted a good measure of enthusiasm in those who believed America’s two-party system had become too money-oriented, and too restrictive for those expressing anything but the most mainstream opinions. But after Bush’s razor-thin, disputed victory, Nader’s supporters dashed to a more practical position, convinced that votes for Nader deprived Gore of the presidency. In the 2004 election, former supporters pleaded with Nader not to run again. When he did, accusation of megalomania and shortsightedness began to fly from within Nader’s own camp.Those onetime backers – like liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, who literally begged Nader to withdraw – failed to grasp the full essence of their candidate. “An Unreasonable Man” tracks Nader’s history back to his hometown of Winsted, Conn., where his father, a Lebanese immigrant, held kitchen-table debates on world issues, and where the town meeting was the cornerstone of politics. That background instilled in Nader a firm belief that democracy required the active participation of its citizens.

That belief was put to work in the realm of consumer rights, most prominently in the 1965 book “Unsafe At Any Speed,” an indictment of the safety record of the automobile industry, particularly General Motors. If Nader had an anti-corporate point of view to begin with, it only hardened when GM hired detectives to discredit him. As his activism expanded – his legacy includes the Consumer Protection Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Freedom of Information Act – his anti-corporate, anti-big government stance became further defined. Nader became an extreme outsider, an antagonist to business as usual.So, for supporters to expect Nader to do anything but push his agenda was to misread their candidate. He wasn’t in the presidential race as a spoiler who, at the last minute, could throw his support to the Democrats and then quietly go away, content in the knowledge that the Republicans – the party of big business – would lose. Nader’s interest was in toppling the two-party system entirely; Gore and Kerry, to him, were slightly lesser evils than Bush, though cut from the same mainstream model. The film opens with a quote from George Bernard Shaw: “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.” It’s a view that Nader seems to have taken to heart, and it has always been clear to him which side he falls on.



Though the filmmakers’ sympathies are with their subject, “An Unreasonable Man” leaves open the question whether Nader’s actions, as a candidate, resulted in a net positive for the country. (It is firmly assumed that his activities as a consumer advocate were for the benefit of society.) Many former friends, whose views are voiced here, think not, and won’t soon be forgiving Ralph for his intransigence. And in the process of opening up the floor for that debate, the film casts light on crucial, contemporary questions of democracy, such as whether the individual really does have a say in his government.”An Unreasonable Man” suffers, however, in style. It’s one talking head after another after another – friends, former friends, longtime foes, politicians, etc. – and the parade eventually gets wearying. The film clocks in at a bulky 122 minutes. Remember that adage about knowing a person’s whole story? The filmmakers here take it a bit too much to heart.”An Unreasonable Man” shows at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, May 23-24, at the Wheeler Opera House. Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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