'Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains'


The Camp David Accords matter to the film because almost 30 years later Carter is still embroiled in the issue of Middle East peace. This man from Plains—who reads his Bible each night and tells visitors to his church that "you don't have to believe about Jesus, you have to believe in Jesus"—can't shake the moral compulsion to get involved.

Such is the blunt question radio host and comedian Al Franken puts to Jimmy Carter as the former president sits down for an interview in the middle of his book tour for Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.


 


Franken, simultaneously solemn and joking, both eases and exacerbates the tension laced throughout the new documentary "Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains," now playing in select cities. Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme shadowed the 39th president during the physically and emotionally taxing book tour at the end of 2006—when Carter was 82.


 


Perhaps the two-hour documentary's chief insight is the Olympian stamina possessed by the man from Plains, Ga. When Carter's publicist from Simon & Schuster understandably grows bleary eyed after days of travel and familiar questions, Carter appears a machine—popping out of his hotel room early in the morning to hit the ground running, fielding questions from people he's just convinced haven't read the book.


 


Speaking of the book …


 


Two things were clearly evident from the tour: "provocative" was the only word in the media's lexicon to describe the book, and many viewed the word "apartheid" in the title as almost unforgivable.


 


In New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta, Carter is repeatedly grilled about the title. In Phoenix, he's met by street protests put on by supporters and detractors, one of whom refers to Carter's "book of lies."


 


Carter, winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, seemingly takes the criticism in stride, though at a speaking engagement at Brandeis University—included near the documentary's end—he shares just how much the reaction has hurt him and his family. Never before, Carter says, even in his political campaigns, has he been called a liar, a bigot, a plagiarist.


 


Demme includes both public and private time with the president. Carter's unrelenting professional endeavors are punctuated by moments of solitude—swimming laps—or phone conversations and meals with wife Rosalynn.


 


"Man from Plains" unfolds mostly in the here and now, with not much archival footage—the notable exception being Carter's days at Camp David with Anwar Al Sadat and Menachem Begin as they worked out the historic peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. These minutes in the documentary are riveting, especially as Rosalynn recounts those days from her perspective and a pivotal moment in the negotiations.


 


The Camp David Accords matter to the film because almost 30 years later Carter is still embroiled in the issue of Middle East peace. This man from Plains—who reads his Bible each night and tells visitors to his church that "you don't have to believe about Jesus, you have to believe in Jesus"—can't shake the moral compulsion to get involved.


 


The film begins with Middle Eastern music playing underneath shots of Plains, Ga., tying together Carterian themes not unrelated. At one point, Carter says he understands the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because his own heritage and the land that goes with it matter to him.


 


Carter's commitment brings people out in droves to his book signings. One man tells Carter he bought 23 copies; another brings his toddler son, named after the president. Palestinians catch the president's eye to thank him.


 


But not everyone is an admirer. The film almost builds to a climactic clash between Carter and legal mind Alan Dershowitz who, while criticizing the former president, is also reasonable. A debate between Carter and Dershowitz never materializes, even as the reasons why remain unclear.


 


That's too bad, because one of Carter's chief marks is his willingness—and ability—to meet those with whom he disagrees and to talk about the issues. When Carter goes to Phoenix, he meets with the Executive Committee of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix. Cameras are in the room, and we hear some of Carter's remarks, but a title card informs us board members refused permission for their comments to be included. (You can read a letter/response from two of the rabbis here.)


 


Later, Carter bemoans what he views as the Bush administration's policy of eschewing dialogue with opponents. He tells a personal story to illustrate his point, tossing around names of world leaders with ease.


 


Such is Jimmy Carter's world. In "Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains," he's confronted by Wolf Blitzer, Charlie Rose, Tavis Smiley, Jay Leno, Terri Gross and a handful of other names you'll recognize. At each point, he emphasizes his desire for peace, even while battling accusations that his book is one-sided and anti-Semitic. Carter denies the charges, saying he believes Israel is a country that wants peace, justice and freedom.


 


Whatever your opinion of Carter, "Man from Plains" reveals him to be indefatigable in his quest for harmony. One wonders if he ever really left Camp David …


 


Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.


 


MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements and brief disturbing images.


 


Director: Jonathan Demme


 


Writer: Jonathan Demme


 


Cast: Jimmy Carter; Rosalynn Carter.


 


The movie's official site is here.


 


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