Jimmy Carter Man From Plains 10/26/07
On the Road to Legacy With an Ex-President.
Jimmy Carter isnâ€™t a real saint, but he plays one in a new documentary. That film, â€œJimmy Carter Man From Plains,â€ was directed by Jonathan Demme and is a friendly, at times fawning, at times gaga 126-minute chronicle of the former presidentâ€™s 2006 national book tour to promote and occasionally defend his best seller â€œPalestine Peace Not Apartheid.â€ Much like its subject, the film is approachable and tonally unmodulated. It delivers even its loudest, most contentious points in a quiet, measured, indoor voice.
Demme has said that he liked Mr. Carter as a president and has â€œadmired what he has accomplished since.â€ That much seems clear from â€œMan From Plains,â€ which opens with archival images of Lillian Carter on â€œThe Tonight Showâ€ telling Johnny Carson (resplendent in an eye-popping plaid suit) that Jimmy, her eldest child, never criticizes her. From this affirmation â€” of the motherâ€™s love, of the sonâ€™s magnanimity â€” the film cuts to what will become one of its more recurrent images of Mr. Carter, of him seated in a car or a plane, and talking to the camera, or into a cellphone, or to an assistant, or to a Secret Service agent as the world races and sometimes drifts by him through the adjacent window.
When Mr. Carter isnâ€™t talking in a car or a plane, heâ€™s discoursing on television and radio. Mr. Demme never obviously joins in the conversation, though he communicates through each image, camera angle and edit. His choices speak volumes about what he would like us to know about Mr. Carter: the former president flies commercial, handles his own luggage (he even waves off the help of one hotel doorman) and reads the Bible daily with his wife, Rosalynn. He helps build houses for Habitat for Humanity and hugs children. He loves Israel. But he wants it to stop oppressing the Palestinian people because itâ€™s the right thing to do and because it will lead to peace in the Mideast. Itâ€™s that simple.
This sense of simplicity is underscored by Mr. Carterâ€™s folksy manner and by Mr. Demmeâ€™s representation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a tidy loop with images of Israelis bulldozing Palestinian homes followed by images of dead Israelis after a suicide bombing. I couldnâ€™t help but wonder what the leftist intellectual Ellen Willis would have made of Mr. Carterâ€™s interest in Israel. In a 2003 essay, â€œIs There Still a Jewish Question? Why Iâ€™m an Anti-Anti-Zionist,â€ Ms. Willis wrote that â€œthe left has focused on Israeli acts of domination and human rights violations with an intense and consistent outrage that it fails to direct toward comparable or worse abuses elsewhere, certainly toward the unvarnished tyrannies in the Middle East (where, for instance, is the divestment campaign against Saudi Arabia?).
The former presidentâ€™s evangelical Christianity makes his focus on the Holy Land all the more intriguing. Yet, while Mr. Carter invokes Jesus almost as much as he does Israel in the documentary, Mr. Demme never directly puts these two parts of his subjectâ€™s life into play with each other. Neither does the filmmaker engage with any of the more inflammatory claims from Mr. Carterâ€™s book, including this: â€œThere are constant and vehement political and media debates in Israel concerning its policies in the West Bank, but because of powerful political, economic and religious forces in the United States, Israeli government decisions are rarely questioned or condemned, voices from Jerusalem dominate in our media, and most American citizens are unaware of circumstances in the occupied territories.â€
Man From Plainsâ€ isnâ€™t about engagement; itâ€™s about disengagement from Mr. Carterâ€™s critics and his more provocative beliefs. Itâ€™s also about legacy building. Mr. Demme adds to that legacy fluidly, with an exception. At one point the camera leaves Mr. Carterâ€™s side to duck into a Yemeni-Israeli restaurant in New York to watch customers watching him defend his book on â€œLarry King Live.â€ And what do we learn from these random diners, who â€” for all weâ€™re told, could be Jews or Baptists â€” other than that they apparently like Yemeni food? Well, according to one of the two men briefly interviewed, the solution is to put a gun to the head of the Hamas leadership, a comment whose inclusion says more about this over-simplistic documentary than it does about this ostensibly representative Jewish voice.
â€œJimmy Carter Man From Plainsâ€ is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). There are some images of violence, including bloodied bodies.
JIMMY CARTER MAN FROM PLAINS
Opens today in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.
Directed by Jonathan Demme; director of photography, Declan Quinn; edited by Kate Amend; music by Djamel Ben Yelles, Alejandro Escovedo, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings; produced by Mr. Demme and Neda Armian; released by Sony Pictures Classics. Running time: 126 minutes.
By MANOHLA DARGIS
New York Times