It may be hard to believe in the aftermath of the 2000 and 2004 elections, but Ralph Nader, the Benedict Arnold of the weather-vane 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 30 years, and was directly responsible for the Environmental Protection Agency, OSHA, the Freedom of Information Act, and other vital public safeguards. The question Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's sprawling documentary addresses is why—as in, why didn't Nader 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 comes in an overview of Nader's staggering record of public service, mixing testimonials (from investigative reporter James Ridgeway, former staffers, and others) with denunciations (from Todd Gitlin and The Nation's insufferably smarmy Eric Alterman). An engaging 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. But as even Nader's friend Phil Donahue concludes, "It's going to be the first line of his obit."
Young Ralph Nader during his lifesaving consumer advocate days.
Opens at Varsity, Fri., April 6. Not rated. 122 minutes.