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He's ever the crusader

`An Unreasonable Man' shows a full picture of Ralph Nader, consumer advocate and politician.

June 13, 2007|Gene Seymour | Newsday

"It'll be in the first two lines of his obituary," Phil Donahue says of his friend Ralph Nader's 2000 presidential candidacy, which won the onetime hero of consumer advocacy the enmity of Democrats who believe he was responsible for getting George W. Bush into the White House -- and, by implication, for every bad thing that's happened since.

The two-disc set "An Unreasonable Man," the mostly reasonable portrait of Nader's life and times that came out on DVD this week, uses many voices to help realign perspective on its subject without resorting to hagiography or apology. Its greatest value, to younger generations and those intent on forgetting such things, comes in reminding us why Nader has been among the few indispensable figures in American life for the last 40 years.

It recounts how an obscure lawyer from Connecticut all but single-handedly mounted what seemed in the mid-1960s a quixotic campaign for safer cars. Nader's effectiveness spooked General Motors into hiring detectives to harass and entrap him in discrediting situations.

The film also chronicles how a consumer-protection movement sprang from Nader's success, leading to armies of lawyers and investigators joining him in pursuit of safer cars, food, homes and workplaces. It also shows Nader to be a funny, endearingly awkward performer (he once hosted "Saturday Night Live") whose life is his work.

It was the marginalization of the consumer movement in the 1980s, the movie suggests, that goaded Nader into third-party presidential politics. Once the movie enters this thorny area, it intensifies the back-and-forth between those political luminaries who think Nader was right to run as an alternative to what he characterizes as a "two-party dictatorship" and those who believe the GOP owes him a debt for swinging things its way.

Nevertheless, like its subject, "An Unreasonable Man" wears away at preconceived notions, reminding you that, whatever conventional politicians may promise, they don't move anywhere unless uncompromising people such as Nader keep pulling their lapels and prodding their consciences.

Extras include deleted scenes and featurettes such as "Debating the Role of Third Parties in the U.S.," "What Kind of President Would Ralph Nader Be?" and "What Happened to the Democratic Party?"

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