Dir. Jonathan Demme. US 2007. 125 mins.
Man from Plains follows the former US president Jimmy Carter from his sprawling family peanut farm in southern Georgia to a national book tour on which the earnest man who brokered the Camp David Accords defends his controversial view that Israel imposes rules akin to apartheid on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
Jimmy Carter is hardly an electoral hero these days, and the two-hour documentary won't be a theatrical hit. The portrait of the post-presidential Carter should still sell well to television worldwide, as the public outside the US is more likely to share his views on the Middle East than Americans are. Yet Carter's books do sell in the US, so the DVD of Man from Plains will have a natural audience among those American consumers of the 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.
Jonathan Demme's understated and admiring doc unfolds like a campaign film that shadows Carter at home and on the road, with Secret Service ushering the former leader everywhere. Carter's 'constituents' here are his eager readers and his mostly-Jewish critics.
His job is to make his arguments exciting and acceptable as he moves through media interviews from New York to Los Angeles, and exciting is not a word that describes Jimmy Carter well. Nor is he a particularly good advocate for his own positions, which was Carter's crucial flaw as president. Two hours with the well-meaning man is very long.
The marathon book tour is for Carter what power-point was for Al Gore. Declan Quinn's camera shifts back and forth as friendly interviewers who haven't read his book stroke Carter at first.
Media encounters soon get less friendly. When experts challenge the former president's facts and Carter stands his ground, Demme counter-poses footage that can't be refuted of Israelis bulldozing Palestinian olive groves and shots of Arab families scrambling over the tall concrete walls that now line the West Bank and Gaza.
Critics like US Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross and the Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz get their say, but Carter is in the spotlight here, and the director's sympathies are clearly with him. Given the White House's polarizing effect outside America and ongoing revelations of corruption in the Bush administration, it easy to see why the former president who eschews pomposity can seem like a sage today. Carter still has his fans, Demme among them.
Demme's documentary isn't so much a debate over the Middle East policy as it is a portrait of Carter's persistence in his campaign to promote peace there. Carter argues that the mere fact that people are talking about peace is progress. Given the dismal situation in the Middle East, he's not wrong. When he addresses a Jewish audience at Brandeis University (which initially rejected his effort to speak there), Carter seems to be winning over his critics.
It's a long march from Plains to peace (even if you're just trying to pacify critics in Boston who call you an anti-Semite), but Demme is suggesting that Carter is the stalwart humble tortoise who, nearing the age of 83, will go as far as he can.
Archival footage toward the end of the documentary reminds the audience of Carter's key role in brokering peace between Israel and Egypt at Camp David in 1978 - the high point of his much-maligned presidency that makes him, to date, Israel's best champion in the White House. It's a fact that his critics tend to ignore.
Time and again, Carter is forced to address the low point of his tenure: hostage-taking in Iran in 1979 that helped bring down his administration, even though he notes repeatedly that all the hostages did return to the US alive. He also cites the high death toll that would have come from a full-scale invasion.
Jimmy Carter emerges from this documentary as a man who sticks to his convictions, whether he is reading the Bible, urging Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate, or building houses in storm-ravaged India and New Orleans.
The man who eschewed the limousines and walked to his own inauguration still has simple tastes: he charges no fees for his speeches and, unlike other former presidents, is not a junketeer on corporate jets. Jonathan Demme's documentary probably won't change the public's mind about Carter, but it celebrates his commitment to public service.
Sony Pictures Classics
Djamel Ben Yelles