Jimmy Carter Man From Plains (2007): Jonathan Demme’s Documentary

Though nominally a documentary covering former president Jimmy Carters recent book tour, Man From Plains is more accurately a distinguished examination on the difficulties of positing legitimately thoughtful, provocative viewpoints in our media-saturated age.

Director Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning helmer of The Silence of the Lambs, clearly admires Carters statesmanship and intellectual rigor, but by remaining dispassionately removed from his subject, his films quiet observations on everything from journalism, commercial promotion, aging, and the perils of exercising ones freedom of speech add up to a stirring, albeit almost accidental, snapshot of the American cultural/political landscape.

Spanning a few weeks in the fall of 2006, Man From Plains follows Carter as he prepares to embark on a nationwide promotional campaign for his latest book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. While Carter had enjoyed an excellent reputation since losing his presidential reelection bid to Ronald Reagan in 1980, including winning the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, Palestine proved to be a divisive book, raising protests that Carter was anti-Israeli and that by using the word apartheid in relation to Palestine, he was overdramatically comparing its peoples situation with black South Africans under white rule. The documentary travels across the country with Carter as he stops for interviews to raise awareness for the book. More often than not, though, he finds himself having to defend his positions and answers charges of anti-Semitism.

Melding a personal portrait of our 39th president into a larger rumination on the interplay of ideas and sensation in our modern era, Man From Plains successfully juggles both assignments without forcing an agenda onto the proceedings. With many great documentaries, a little bit of good luck can help elevate a compelling subject into the realm of truly memorable filmmaking, and for Demme, that fortunate accident was the ability to capture Carter in the midst of one of the most turbulent moments of his life. No question Carter would have made an interesting central figure regardless, but the added tension of the ardent criticism that met the books release allows for a unique opportunity to watch an admired public figure face his detractors head on.

While most viewers know Demme from his fiction films, such as The Silence of the Lambs and Something Wild, he has also made several well-regarded documentaries, like the concert film Stop Making Sense. More recently, he directed 2006s Neil Young: Heart of Gold, and like that film, Man From Plains presents an admiring (but never fawning) appreciation for an older public icon, revealing his weakened physical condition while simultaneously demonstrating his still-sharp mental prowess.

Carter had just turned 82 before filming began on Man From Plains, and Demmes cameras are not shy about recording this seemingly frail-looking man as he goes through another grueling 16-hour day of book signings, airplane flights, meet-and-greets, and live television interviews. If nothing else, the documentary is a testament to Carters almost inextinguishable energy. But for such an amiable presence, Carter can also be irritable, especially when dealing with reporters who are merely reacting to the controversy surrounding the book without perusing its pages firsthand. Even at these moments, though, what comes through most assuredly is that Carters views on the Israeli/Palestinian tensions have been profoundly considered. Even if one differs with the former presidents opinions, Man From Plains argues that Carter possesses the political experience and intellectual capabilities to more than competently argue his side.

This leads to the films incisive critique of our societys media-intensive culture which disseminates information with such speed that accuracy has long ago been sacrificed. But the documentary also shows how this relationship is a two-way street. Because Carter has written several bestsellers since his presidency, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid was expected to be another commercially successful book, even without the inflammatory use of apartheid in the title. The film isnt shy about suggesting that Carter is using the media as much as the media is using him: He wants to sell his work and get its message to people, while journalists want to milk the controversy to draw ratings for his appearances. By not casting Carter as some nave lamb walking into the lions den, Demme deftly illustrates how one must engage in the media circus to become part of the worldwide exchange of ideas. Carter is a sweet-natured, deeply religious man, but that doesnt mean hes also not savvy, as his frequently charming schmoozing on the book-tour circuit more than demonstrates.

Astute criticisms of Carters book get fair treatment in Man From Plains, but the documentary rightly asserts that too often his well-founded but potentially unpopular positions were met with immediate resistance by those who hadnt even bothered to read the book. The movie never explicitly endorses Carters perspective that Israels unfair controlling of Palestinian territory is only escalating the tension between the two lands. Ultimately, the documentary emphasizes the importance of healthy debate in these matters, which, appropriately, was Carters intention by writing his controversial book. Man From Plains tries not to have a position on Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, but it makes plain that provocative ideas need equally thoughtful consideration from others in order for their merits to be accurately assessed, an intellectual give-and-take that has mostly vanished from the American media landscape.

Beyond the stimulating interplay of viewpoints, though, Man From Plains dynamically captures the frenzied environment of a well-funded publicity tour. Demme gives Carters comings and goings such energy that this cerebral film never feels didactic or wonkish, and indeed the behind-the-scenes moments from Carters appearances on The Tonight Show, The Charlie Rose Show, and other programs have an electrifying, insider-ish intimacy. No doubt that left-leaning viewers will be the movies initial draw, but the films deeper questions about media responsibility and the dearth of scholarly debate are the sort that need to be confronted by all audiences, no matter their political affiliation, personal feelings about Jimmy Carter, or opinion of Palestine and Israel.

Credits

Running time: 125 minutes

Director: Jonathan Demme
Production company: Participant Productions
US Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics
Producers: Jonathan Demme, Neda Armian
Executive Producers: Ron Bozman, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann
Editor: Kate Amend
Cinematography: Declan Quinn
Music: Djamel Ben Yelles, Alejandro Escovedo, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings

Reviewed by Tim Grierson