Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains
2007, PG, 125 min. Directed by Jonathan Demme.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., March 14, 2008
The title is as deceptively folksy as the man in question, who quotes the New Testament as easily as decades-old statistics on national oil consumption. Welcome to our 39th president – you know, the peanut farmer – who continues to reside in his family home in Plains, Ga. (population 600), in between touring the globe as our most esteemed elder statesman. Demme – who throughout his career has hopscotched from narrative features like The Silence of the Lambs to documentaries like Stop Making Sense – settles on a narrow scope here as he follows Jimmy Carter on his 2006 book tour, in which he promoted, and more frequently defended, his most recent title, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Yup, them’s fighting words, quite intentionally; as Carter explains again and again in radio, TV, and print interviews, his goal was to spark an international debate. Some debate he gets, along with a whole lot of public outcry, especially within the Jewish community (including a war of words with celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz). By dint of the film’s structure – the camera goes from airport to airport, interview to interview – Man From Plains suffers somewhat from a feeling of sameness (which provides a not-uninteresting lens on what book-tour fatigue must feel like), and when controversy is injected late in the film – accusations of plagiarism and a closed-door meeting with a council of Phoenix rabbis – Demme treads too lightly. Still, it’s an intriguing historical document, not attempting a completist portrait of Carter but rather a series of candids: This is the former president recounting a long-ago ride in a Rolls-Royce; there he is kneading his forehead with exhaustion. In the film’s most strangely affecting moment, we watch a make-up artist for the Tavis Smiley show devotedly rub lotion into Carter’s hands: It is a sight to behold. Demme and his small team of camera operators have a special talent for zeroing in on moments such as this, moments that are bolstered by a typically spot-on and internationally flavored soundtrack (including Gillian Welch, Brother Ali, and original music by Alejandro Escovedo). Perhaps Man From Plains’ most lasting impression: The pain of watching a president who, in addition to being trained as a nuclear physicist, actually knows how to pronounce the word, too.