Spoiler Alert 

Documentary reopens the Nader debate: Is it his fault?

It is November 7, election day in America, the year 2000, and en route to the ballot (screen, chad dimpler, whatever) every hand miraculously freezes in mid-selection. All at once, there is a lightning-fast stroboscopic blip of the future: two planes, human rain, a shower of debris and dust; tortured prisoners heaped in a pile; flag-draped coffins. Muzzle flashes blink in the Superdome. A grinning man in a flight suit poses before a banner reading "Mission Accomplished." A flash, a fade, the world unfreezes, and all eyes return to the ballot. Having seen what they've seen, does anyone vote for Ralph Nader?

Infuriating, combative, infernally self-righteous — and often right — the vexing vote-splitter is the subject of An Unreasonable Man, Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's sprawling documentary. A cornucopia of talking-head rancor, indefatigable idealism, and livid history, the film argues that the crusading activist, organizer, and working man's champion deserves a bigger place in history than as just the Grinch Who Spoiled the Election. That doesn't mean he'll get it. As even Nader's friend and supporter Phil Donahue concludes, "It's going to be the first line of his obit."

Like its subject, the movie leads with its chin, starting with Nader's announcement of his 2004 presidential run — a move that sent liberals scurrying for torches and pitchforks. "Thank you, Ralph, for the Iraq War ... thank you, Ralph, for the destruction of the Constitution," catcalls The Nation's insufferable smarm-bucket Eric Alterman.

Hard to believe, but the Benedict Arnold of the bleeding-heart set was once a hero — a little guy who brought Big Auto to heel, helped prevent more than 190,000 automotive deaths in thirty years, and was directly responsible for the Environmental Protection Agency, OSHA, the Freedom of Information Act, and other vital public safeguards. The question An Unreasonable Man addresses is why — as in, why didn't Nader the public servant just hand over his votes to Al Gore or John Kerry, and concede that a lesser evil is still better than a greater one?

The answer the movie presents is complicated: Because Nader grew up amid the town-hall government of his Connecticut hometown, and came away certain that open debate and citizen engagement are the purest forms of democracy. Because Nader is convinced, rightly or wrongly, that all his missions carry a public mandate. Because Nader is one competitive, argumentative cuss. Because Nader has no truck with the idea of realpolitik, or with perpetuating a rotten system. (Just how rotten we see on camera, when state troopers block him from attending the 2000 presidential debate — a debate he would have greatly enriched, which was of course the problem.) And also, not least of all, because he couldn't stomach the candidates.

An Unreasonable Man shifts from Nader's present infamy to his first public triumph: his early-1960s crusade against accident-prone design flaws in the sleek, sexy machines rolling off Detroit's assembly lines. When GM played hardball, hiring hookers and detectives to discredit Nader, the resulting congressional inquest and six-figure invasion-of-privacy settlement made his career — he became the Capra-esque embodiment of the guy who fights city hall and wins. The revelation of Mantel and Skrovan's documentary is how long he maintained that reputation, and how deeply he instilled his ideals in others. Mantel, herself a former Nader staffer, and Skrovan, a veteran staff writer on Everybody Loves Raymond, interview a number of the young activists who flocked to Washington in the late '60s as "Nader's Raiders" — proto-wonks inspired by Nader to flex their civic muscle.

Though plainly sympathetic, the film doesn't so much endorse as explain Nader's decision not to step aside after it was clear he had campaigned too effectively for the Democrats' comfort. The filmmakers give ample voice to usual-suspect critics such as Alterman and Todd Gitlin, who brand Nader a deluded megalomaniac. More affecting are the former Raiders who regret their boss' obstinacy, and find his subsequent brush-off a rejection of their shared past. Sadder still are the clips of former supporters Susan Sarandon and Michael Moore actively campaigning against him.

The question remains: Knowing what they know now, do Nader supporters regret their vote? For most, almost certainly, but An Unreasonable Man reminds us why a vote for Nader mattered. Because it represented the unshakable belief in a better future, and in an individual's power to effect positive change. The film's title refers to George Bernard Shaw's dictum that "All progress depends on the unreasonable man" who insists on bending the world to his will. If the film shows that few men are as unreasonable as Ralph Nader, it also shows that few have so succeeded in shaping their world. If Nader is guilty of anything, it's of clinging to his ideals amid a damburst of compromise and disillusionment as if they were a lifeboat — or an anchor.

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