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MOVIE REVIEW

Engrossing biography shows Nader's complex character

Ralph Nader is like the fabled elephant groped by blind men: Everyone knows they’ve got their hands around something but no one can agree what it is. Is the man a great American or a pious scold? The driving force behind consumer safety and citizen empowerment or the person who single-handedly delivered the country to George W. Bush in 2000? ‘‘Thank you, Ralph Nader, for the war in Iraq,’’ says one commentator in ‘‘An Unreasonable Man,’’ and if sarcasm could kill, he’d be in jail.

This engrossing new documentary favors its subject without letting him off the hook. It’s a biographical epic about a public servant who became more and more rigid as the country changed around him, and while directors Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan cautiously make the case that the consumer advocate-turned-political candidate still represents the best of America, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that even pure-hearted zealotry has its dark, obsessive side.

What ‘‘An Unreasonable Man’’ does best is rehabilitate Nader’s career prior to the election and remind us of an unparalleled public-interest legacy stretching over four decades. Seat belts, airbags, tobacco warning labels, clean air and water bills all have his name on them, and his scrutiny has fallen on everything from the auto insurance industry to Congress.

He came to fame in the early 1960s by taking on the automotive industry — ‘‘Unsafe at Any Speed’’ was published in 1965 — and General Motors’ heavy-handed attempts to silence him included sending women to proposition him while he was grocery shopping. Nader sued for ‘‘overzealous surveillance’’ and won; the auto giant should have known you can’t seduce a saint.

‘‘An Unreasonable Man’’ spends a lot of time with ‘‘Nader’s Raiders,’’ the army of young, clean-cut idealists he hired to take his consumer advocacy to every industry and all corners of America. We see them interviewed in youth (they made a well-groomed alternative to the hippies) and we hear them today, heads nearly all bowed in sadness and anger at the tarnishing of their work by their boss’ political ambitions.

The movie shows how Nader alienated himself from followers who went to work for Jimmy Carter in 1976, and it shows him both depressed and energized by the Reagan years, when many of his initiatives were violently dismantled. Disappointment fueled his resolve while widening the scope of his fury. It wasn’t cars or Congress — it was the entire system that was rotten, and only he could save us.

And so to the 2000 election, in which Nader rode to battle saying the two parties were the same, a statement that was specious when he made it and is fatuous in retrospect. Yet he hit on truths as well, and he spoke to a progressive base that was sick of it all and still is. Mantel and Skrovan have some remarkable footage of the candidate being shut out of watching the debates by a Massachusetts state trooper, and even right-wing rival Pat Buchanan is on hand to say Nader got a raw deal.

The aftermath isn’t pretty, and ‘‘An Unreasonable Man’’ contorts itself to present rationales for why Nader didn’t lose the election for Gore. These are awfully shaky — he did — but the fiasco’s effect on muffling dissent has been more ruinous. The filmmakers hold special contempt for the Hollywood left that stumped for Nader the first time around and shunned him like Ebola in 2004; Michael Moore, in particular, looks like a hypocritical clown here.

The ‘‘unreasonable man’’ himself is interviewed, too, and he comes across as patient, articulate, and maddeningly uncompromising. Should a man this inflexible be allowed to run a country? Or is Ralph Nader best as our conscience, hectoring us from outside the city walls? To its credit, the movie leaves the matter with us.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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