The biggest misstep for the Hot Docs festival this year, at least from the punter’s point of view, must be the choice to agree to screen an advert for ‘platinum partner’ Cadillac’s new Escalade vanity SUV before every screening. The public response to this advert has been brutal, with at every screening I’ve seen (bar, surprisingly, Black Gold) the car booed and jeered at by a significant portion of the audience. Naturally, at this biopic of Ralph Nader, controversial presidential candidate and author of the seminal ‘Unsafe at Any Speed’, the reaction was no different.
I might receive some stick for this in the comments, lefty pinko commie Scot and/or Canadian that I am, but I greatly respect Ralph Nader. Not necessarily as a presidential candidate (though, having managed to only live in nations that have more than adequate third parties, I completely believe in free elections) but completely as a social activist. As the film shows, by the time Nader begun campaigning for car safety, General Motors had already forced Ford to remove an optional ‘safety package’ from their vehicles for fear of regulation, and so cars lacked any of the safety features we’ve come to expect in the modern age. No roll cages. No airbags. No seat belts. After a crash left a friend paralysed, Nader wrote ‘Unsafe at Any Speed’ a watershed moment that led to Nader being followed and harassed by private detectives and other operatives hired by General Motors, but which finally led to the regulation of the automotives industry.
An Unreasonable Man takes a largely chronological look at Nader’s life from this moment until the present day, with a significant, though not unwarranted, amount of that time devoted to his presidential campaigns. Indeed, the film takes the clever route of introducing the film with some harsh criticism of Nader for his choice to run, from a variety of sources. An Unreasonable Man is clearly an attempt to show his controversial presidential bids within the context which they deserve, reminding viewers that he hasn’t always been an old, stubborn lunatic, but was once a young, stubborn lunatic (who still spoke more sense than anyone else).
This stance affects impartiality, but how impartial can you expect a biopic to be? Particularly when Nader’s conduct outside of these bids is near-saintly. Though it does make a valiant attempt at showing both sides, and never does explicitly condone his choice to run, the critics of Nader quickly reveal themselves to be utterly mental, or at least to not have all the facts, and the evidence against the wilder accusations levelled against him is stacked up heavily. Most illuminating is a political scientist and democrat whose paper attempts to disprove the widely held fallacy that Nader cost the Democrats the 2000 election. I believe it can be found here.
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." And proceeds to prove, without a doubt, that Ralph Nader is an unreasonable man. It’s up to the audience to decide if that is to be admired or not.