Documentary Review: JIMMY CARTER MAN FROM PLAINS (2007)
Before director Jonathan Demme signed on to helm a documentary about Jimmy Carter, he negotiated two important points: he would have unlimited access to the former president and he would have final cut of the film. As a result, Demme has produced an unusually intimate, insightful and revealing tribute to an exceptional elder statesman who, now in his 80s, continues to work tirelessly for peace.
On The Road With Jimmy Carter
Demme chose to make the structural spine of his Jimmy Carter tribute the former president’s nationwide tour to publicize his 21st book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, in which he lays out his very controversial point of view regarding Israeli behavior towards the Palestinian people. Basically, while rebuking Palestinians for continued provocation and violence towards Israelis, the book effectively faults Israel for encircling specific Palestinian territories with walls that, according to Carter, create ghetto-like imprisonment for the people who live in them.
Because Carter had been criticized for the position he took in the book, Demme felt the book tour might present dramatic, possibly stressful situations in which Carter’s personality and personal credos would best be revealed. And, indeed they are.
Dawn to Dusk Coverage
With cameras trained on Carter from the moment he opened his hotel room door in the morning until the instant in which he closed it at night, Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn followed the Man From Plains across the United States, documenting him at college campus whistle stops and in broadcast studios in which Carter discussed and, in some cases, jousted about his point of view with the likes of Terry Gross, Tavis Smiley and Larry King.
In bookstores and other venues, Demme and Quinn film Carter as he engages with an adoring public who snap up Palestine Peace Not Apartheid a dozen per person at book signings in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities, and as he faces demonstrators who vociferously protest his use of the word ‘Apartheid,’ which conjures what they consider to be unfair comparisons between Israel and the heinous racist policies formerly in practice in South Africa.
Demme and Quinn focus on Carter while they ride with him on commercial airplanes and in cars rushed through traffic by police escorts.
During the book tour, Carter takes a detour to New Orleans, where he helps Habitat for Humanity build houses for Katrina victims–one of whom is a grateful young musician who lost everything in the flood.
On off hours, Carter swims, rides a bicycle, consults with Rosalynn, reads, and in a most friendly and engaging manner meets and greets almost everyone who happens to wander into his path. He’s charming, smart and dedicated. And, extraordinarily candid.
Beyond the Book Tour
Fortunately, Demme supports his road trip portrait of book signing Carter with well-researched archival footage showing the Man from Plains during different phases of his political career and personal life.
There are images from his childhood, showing him with his family and the people who were most important to him, including Rachel Clark, who was sort of his surrogate mother while Ms. Lillian was working 20-hour nursing shifts. We become familiar with his student days at the Naval Academy, his stint in the military as a submariner, and with his return to Georgia following his father’s death and his support of his mother and stewardship of the land that’s been in his family since the early 1800s. We learn about his election to the Georgia Senate, his first (and failed) bid to become Georgia’s governor, his eventual election and subsequent move from Georgia’s state capital to the White House. We witness him meeting with heads of state, negotiating the Camp David Accord and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.
Demme, who is obviously a Carter admirer, admirably provides the Carter back story that brings us to the present, to this publicity tour for the book that’s stirring up all the controversy. It’s quite fascinating to see how Carter arrived at this particular and challenging moment in his life, and how his past has prepared to deal with it. Will his reputation suffer as a result? We he lose influence? Will he shange his opinion under pressure, or stick to it?
The Bottom Line
A major part of this documentary is about Carter’s interaction with the media–with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and the others.
Demme’s choice to use so many snippets of footage from other media interviews is an interesting one. He had complete access to Carter, so why rely on or use interviewers other than his own? Well, wider range of questions and different chemistry, for one thing. But, perhaps Demme is also offering an implied opinion, or is perhaps opening a window through which we can see how media filters information, puts spins on perceptions of people and events.
It’s important to remember that this documentary is primarily a tribute to Jimmy Carter as a great humanitarian who religiously pursues the fight for peace. The film’s essential message is one of hope and inspiration, and it would be a shame if it were to be subverted by a singular focus on the ‘Apartheid’ issue.
Carter says in the film that the title is meant to be a bit of provocation–to do some research and think things through. But, he asks people to actually read the book before they fault his point of view for something that it is not.
Then, too, seeing this film will tell you a lot about where the Man From Plains is really coming from.
Jimmy Carter Man From Plains had its US theatrical release in 2007. It is available on DVD.
Title: JimmyCarter Man From Plains
Director: Jonathan Demme
US Theatrical Release Date: October 26, 2007 (limited)
Running Time: 125 mins.
Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
US Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics