Why are progressives still furious with Ralph Nader six years after the U.S. Supreme Court handed George W. Bush a victory? What's behind the consumer advocate's insistence on a third-party candidacy? How can this guy's track record on highway safety be reconciled with his role in enabling the current train wreck of domestic and foreign policy? Those are some of the burning questions addressed in An Unreasonable Man, a documentary that Newfane native and 1976 Castleton State College grad Henriette Mantel co-directed with Steve Skrovan.
The film opens Friday at Merrill's Roxy Cinemas in Burlington. Mantel, who'll be on hand for a chat after both evening shows, may face an audience that wonders if the pioneering public-interest crusader has become an egocentric spoiler.
On-screen, the likes of filmmaker Michael Moore and media critic Todd Gitlin suggest as much. "Thank you, Ralph, for the Iraq war," The Nation columnist Eric Alterman says rhetorically.
By contrast, longtime Nader ally and journalist James Ridgeway excoriates the Democratic Party's determination to trash Nader for exercising his Constitutional right to run for office: "They're the meanest bunch of motherfuckers I have ever come across."
While the documentary is clearly pro-Nader, it strives for balance. That's a good thing, since the Left is bitterly divided on Nader's legacy.
During a recent telephone interview, Nader decried the "stolen" 2000 election: "Gore won. There were all kinds of what-ifs. Why pick on the Green Party? Why don't they go after the thieves? We can't keep ignoring that we have a two-party elected dictatorship. It's so antidemocratic."
Nader's devotion to the democratic process was evident in 1965, when the young, Harvard-educated lawyer published Unsafe at Any Speed. His landmark book scrutinized the Chevrolet Corvair and other poorly designed "psychosexual dreamboats," as he describes such vehicles in the film. The Congressional hearings that followed led to the consumer-protection laws - and mandatory seatbelts - that we take for granted today.
Nader proceeded to sue General Motors for invasion of privacy after the company spied on and harassed him. He was awarded $425,000, the seed money for his subsequent battles against corporate greed and government neglect.
With a staff of 110 so-called "Raiders," mostly students, Nader went on to champion safe drinking water, clean air, occupational health and other initiatives. He told his minions: "You can bring your conscience to work every day."
While other young people of their generation were demonstrating in the streets, these zealous investigators worked within the system, which they believed could function properly and fairly. "The Vietnam and civil rights movements created an atmosphere that made our efforts seem less extreme," Nader reflects on camera.
These "radical nerds," as the Raiders were known, enjoyed stunning successes. Skrovan and Mantel - who was briefly the office manager at Nader's Washington, D.C., operation - enumerate them throughout the film. The accomplishments are all the more impressive given how anonymous the individuals remain.
Nader alone became a household name, yet his glory never appeared particularly personal, even when he graced the covers of national news magazines. The fight for justice defined him, obscuring more ordinary human traits.
The documentary includes terrific archival footage spanning the last four decades. There are stirring sequences of Raiders toiling round the clock. Several of these idealists resurface as contemporary talking heads on both sides of the controversy about their mentor's first presidential bid.
Although the 2000 campaign is now the stuff of history, the film examines this period in a way that manages to sustain suspense. Banned from participating in a televised Boston debate, Nader tries merely to attend the event with a valid ticket. The police outside threaten to arrest him for trespassing. God bless America.
In another poignant scene, Nader fires up a packed Madison Square Garden rally where Eddie Vedder sings a plaintive "The Times They Are A-Changin'." If only.