Judge Clark Douglas is about to go on tour to promote his controversial new book, DVD Verdict: Why All Other Review Sites are Evil.
"Hey there! Enjoy some peanuts, son!"—Jimmy Carter during the mid-1990s, giving yours truly a bag of Plains, GA, peanuts. Not a particularly relevant charge, but I just had to share that very brief story.
When Jonathan Demme set out to make a documentary about former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, his primary motivation was pure curiosity. Carter is such a busy, active, tireless public figure, and has refused to fade away in the years following his presidency. Demme wanted to know, "what makes Carter tick?" The answer to that question is what turns Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains from merely an observational look at an important figure into a moving portrait of a good American man.
Facts of the Case
At the beginning of the film, Carter is about to embark upon his book tour. You have undoubtedly heard of Carter's controversial book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The controversy was not caused so much by the actual contents of the book as by the title, which likened the conflict between Israel and Palestine to the racial oppression that took place in South Africa. Carter agreed to give Demme and his camera crew 100% access over the course of the entire nationwide book tour; they were allowed to film anything at anytime, with no exceptions.
We begin by hearing a few stories from Carter about his background, and it gives us a little bit of an idea about who he is and why he feels the way he does about the serious situation in the Middle East. We see a more intimate side of him and are permitted to join him as he teaches a Sunday school class, hosts a big picnic featuring fried quail (mmm, tasty!), and shares stories about his family and his life. You may or may not care for Carter's brand of politics, but the one thing that seems evident is that he is a man of great sincerity. You believe that he believes everything he says, and he is not afraid of answering hard questions.
That becomes increasingly evident as Carter begins his book tour. Demme takes us backstage and shows us footage of Carter appearing on the standard radio and television programs. Jay Leno, Charlie Rose, Teri Gross, Tavis Smiley, Larry King, Wolf Blitzer, and others make noteworthy appearances, and Demme take an interesting approach to filming these scenes. Rather than merely showing us the standard televised footage, we watch the interview from behind the desk, or from the sound booth, or from a different angle than we see on television. In addition to letting us hear Carter respond to increasingly challenging and difficult questions, we also get a very interesting look at what goes on behind the scenes of a television or radio talk show.
Carter grows increasingly frustrated as the tour goes along, as he realizes that more and more of his interviewers have not even read the book, that they've only looked at the title and read a couple of the reviews. Even so, he responds with grace and intelligence during each interview and seems to thrive in moments that would make most interviewees squirm. But as time goes on, the criticism only gets heavier, and soon colleges are even turning down Carter's offers to lecture—for free! That's astonishing, considering that certain other ex-Presidents have been pulling in six figures per speech wherever they go.
Wisely, Demme does not add any narration to try and enhance what is going on. He lets Carter, Carter's supporters, and Carter's opponents speak for themselves. Granted, some of Carter's opponents (including some of those who resigned from the Carter Center in Atlanta) refused to be interviewed for the documentary. However, those who do wish to protest what Carter is saying are given the opportunity to do so. The most significant anti-Carter voice in the documentary is Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, who was one of the most vocal and active opponents of Carter's book. His interview in this documentary is a big asset, adding some critical weight to a film that could possibly be viewed as pro-Carter propaganda without it.
Even so, the documentary does tend to reflect Carter in a very positive light, but I would argue that this is only because Jimmy Carter is a man who reflects himself in a very positive light. Again, say what you will about Jimmy Carter's independent diplomacy and controversial politics, but can you think of a recent United States president who has taken a more active interest in the affairs of this nation and this world? Carter is 83 years old, and you'd think that he would just want to retire, relax, and eat peanuts. But look at this man's life! He has been working hard with Habitat for Humanity for years, and gets out there and builds houses right alongside everyone else. He's not taking vacations in the Bahamas; he's going on peace-seeking trips to troubled countries like Cuba and Darfur. Even in his "spare time," he keeps busy writing books. He's written many books with political themes, books focusing on personal values and reflections, and even novels. In the middle of all of this and much more, Carter still manages to find time to maintain a healthy relationship with Rosalyn, his wife of many years. "We read a passage from the Bible together every single night," he says with a twinkle in his eye.
This is the sort of documentary you'd expect to be a flat-looking talking heads piece, but it's really quite beautiful visually thanks to the inventive cinematography from Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas). Quinn captures all kinds of compelling images and angles, and brings out the beauty in as many situations as possible. The DVD sports a very strong transfer, gently capturing a wide array of colors and atmospheres. Sound is generally strong as well, though that is often dependant on the quality of the source material.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains has a significant weakness, it's that the title implies that we're going to get an in-depth look at the life of Jimmy Carter. While we do get a very intimate look at Carter himself, we're only getting to see a pretty limited chapter of his life (his actual Presidency is almost overlooked completely). As that chapter is centered around Carter's most controversial book, the film is arguably a bit more about the situation in Israel and Palestine than it is about Carter himself—it just happens to feature Carter in every scene. On the other hand, as I said, there's never a dull moment. Between the stuff about Carter, the political stuff, and the behind-the-scenes look at various programs, you get that sense that each scene in this two-hour documentary could have been twice as long without damaging anything.
I can't say that I agree with 100% of everything Jimmy Carter has done in the years following his presidency (or all the things he did during his presidency, for that matter). Nonetheless, after viewing Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains, I have a deeply increased level of respect for the manner in which this man lives his life. Carter's life offers a portrait of how a leader of this nation should conduct himself and demonstrates the qualities that such a person should have: honesty, compassion, understanding, grace, open-mindedness, and a deep desire for positive change. I can only hope that other politicians see this documentary and think to themselves, "Now that is the kind of person that I would like to be." A deeply engaging portrait of a fascinating human being.
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