Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's documentary attempts to rehabilitate Ralph Nader by opening on the offensive, giving his most vitriolic critics - including Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin and political journalists Eric Alterman and Morton Mintz of The Nation - the first word. Make that "words": Egomaniac, smug, arrogant, deluded, pariah, self-aggrandizing, traitor to socially progressive ideals, spoiler. Skrovan and Mantel, longtime friends and comedy professionals, seem unlikely defenders of Nader's legacy. But Mantel's 1970s stint as Nader's office manager gives her an insider's perspective, and their film is simultaneously a primer on Nader's revolutionary grassroots activism, a warts-and-all character study, and an elegy for a brilliant career in public service blighted by the third-party presidential campaign widely blamed for throwing the bitterly contested 2000 election to George Bush and ushering in a new era of conservative government.
A Princeton and Harvard-trained lawyer, Nader grew up believing that fighting city hall was a condition of democratic citizenship. He put his ideals into practice on the national stage by taking on the American automakers industry for building cars that were, to quote the title of his inflammatory book, Unsafe at Any Speed. Industry giant General Motors responded by hiring detectives, harassing Nader and his family with menacing phone calls, and trying to lure him into compromising positions. Nader's asceticism was his armor, and his dogged persistence culminated in the Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 and GM president James Roche's public apology. Nader and the youthful idealists who bought into his message that you could work the system against itself were responsible for the Freedom of Information and Occupational Safety and Health Acts, along with legislation protecting America's air and drinking water, establishing meat- and poultry-inspection standards and discouraging retaliation against whistleblowers.