In all honesty, I’ll admit that the prospect of sitting through a documentary about former President Jimmy Carter embarking on a tour to promote his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid wasn’t what I’d call appealing. When I found out the film’s running time was 125 minutes, I started to dread Jonathan Demme’s Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains more than any number of the sure-to-be horrible movies I usually review. Everything about the documentary seemed to scream that cardinal sin of filmmaking: boring. Thankfully, I was wrong.
By the time I was born, Jimmy Carter was already long out of office. Thus, my opinions on the man have been formed by what the legacy of his presidency had become, critics who said his presidency was plagued by malaise, with the idea that he’s done a better job out of office (with projects like Habitat for Humanity) than he did while in office. And while certain aspects of Carter’s presidency are touched on in the film—such as the energy crisis, Iran and Carter’s role in the Camp David Accords—the documentary is first and foremost about what Carter is doing today combined with a portrait of the man himself.
This is done through the framework of Carter’s book tour. We tag along to book signings, radio and TV interviews and public-speaking events. The film shows the controversy surrounding his book—from the use of the word “apartheid” in the title to its supposed anti-Semitic nature. But what the film does successfully is give Carter a platform for his ideas under the auspices of the constant debates between himself and his detractors. Through the debates, we are shown that Carter is not against Israel, but rather for peace, and along the way we are given an outline of the complicated struggle that is occurring in the Middle East.
But as much as the film is about Carter’s politics, it’s also about Carter the man. He’s painted as a sort of Renaissance man from the small town of Plains, Ga.: farmer, athlete, Nobel Prize winner, painter, poet, author, politician, humanitarian and physicist. Remarkable in and of itself, all of this becomes even more amazing when you realize the current president is proud to have been a C-grade student and has admitted to only rarely reading the newspaper, whereas Carter can recite Dylan Thomas. The jabs at the Bush administration are there, from the outright (as when Carter states his opinion of the current White House) to the more subtle (like traveling to New Orleans’ still-dilapidated Ninth Ward to build houses), but it’s never a movie simply lambasting Bush.
Love him or hate him, Man From Plains is unlikely to sway anyone’s opinion one way or the other on Carter. What the film does instead is promote discourse as opposed to mudslinging. Demme’s film never acts like an incendiary call to action, à la Michael Moore, but rather a call to thinking, of looking at the world in a more complicated light. For anyone interested in world affairs, the complexities of Israel and Palestine or politics, Man From Plains is currently a must. Rated PG for some thematic elements and brief disturbing images.