Was the Ralph Nader who ran for president in 2000 and 2004 a cranky, ego-driven spoiler who knowingly tipped those elections to the Republicans and took a devil's-advocate delight in doing so? Or was he simply a citizen following his conscience? Before I saw An Unreasonable Man, a perceptive and beautifully made documentary portrait of Nader directed by Steve Skrovan and Henriette Mantel, I'd have said, with no small measure of contempt, that Nader was a passive-aggressive has-been trying to stick a monkey wrench into a system that no longer had any use for him.
I no longer think it's that simple. In the 1960s, Nader became famous as a ''consumer advocate,'' but as the thrilling first hour of An Unreasonable Man makes clear, that humdrum bureaucratic term didn't do justice to his courage, his vision. He defeated giant corporations the auto industry, big pharma back when no one else was even trying to; he had the temerity to believe that fighting for safety and quality and transparency was a quintessentially American thing to do. As it moves forward to the presidential campaigns, An Unreasonable Man widens its focus to take in the spreading corporate control of American life, and it reveals Nader's fixation on that issue to be as complex in its idealism as his activism was in the '60s. Yes, he ''spoiled'' the presidential race, but the film raises a question at once radical and haunting: How much does it profit a democracy to gain a better leader when that democracy is starting to lose the soul of how it functions? A