Plainspeak

New doc shows how Carter was never some limp-wristed turncoat

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The Jimmy Carter captured by director Jonathan Demme in Man from Plains is intransigent and indefatigable, a sharp-witted 83-year-old former president on a mission.

Demme follows Carter as he's whisked around in Secret Service motorcades, visits major media outlets for the usual grilling, addresses the concerns of special interest groups, and vigorously presses the flesh in large-scale gatherings with the public. Despite closely resembling a political campaign, Carter is actually on a 2006 book tour.

The 39th president has quietly built an impressive legacy after his tumultuous single term in office (1977-81), and his status as an elder statesman was solidified when Carter won the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize. He begins the grueling and familiar process of publicizing his 21st book expecting some probing questions, and a certain level of respect. But the book is Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, and this tour is not business as usual.

Two things are apparent early in this film: Demme's deep affection for his subject; and that this sophisticated political veteran didn't expect the vitriolic response to his latest bestseller. It takes a while for it to sink in that things are not going normally. Large and enthusiastic crowds greet his book signings (where Carter is a ruthlessly efficient autographing machine), eager for their brush with political celebrity and basking in his particular brand of dignified congeniality.

Yet interview after interview seems to get stuck on the use of the word "apartheid," and Carter is constantly thrown on the defensive. Despite the Ronald Reagan-perpetrated image of his predecessor as a weak capitulator, Carter does not back down. Ever. He sticks to his assertions, and maintains that his experience and deep knowledge of the region's thorny history give him the authority to discuss the Palestinian situation in Gaza and the West Bank in terms of segregation and oppression.

Perhaps to keep the debate from coming off as a bloodless intellectual exercise, Demme inserts footage of Palestinian villages being bulldozed as well as showing the aftermath of suicide bombings in Israel. There's a visceral quality to these images that stirs emotions — yet by not providing any context, Demme is merely fanning the flames of outrage, adding fuel to the firestorm that threatens to singe the goodwill Carter has earned in two decades of tireless diplomacy.

Despite some iffy editing decisions, and Demme's tendency to deify the man from Plains, Ga. (even commissioning Dan Bern's folk hero anthem "Ballad of Jimmy Carter"), it's hard to imagine a better pairing of filmmaker and subject.

An independent-minded director who hit big with the grisly but hypnotic The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Demme seems to have gotten stuck in a Hollywood rut, directing back-to-back lukewarm remakes (2002's The Truth About Charlie and 2004's The Manchurian Candidate). But his recent documentaries, The Agronomist (2002), about slain Haitian radio journalist Jean Dominique, and the concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2005), have the spark that enlivens his best work, an enthusiastic need to communicate ideas — and ideals.

Following a press tour may be a limiting format, but as in his filmed monologue Swimming to Cambodia (1986), Demme proves that visual constrictions can be used to focus attention on the subject and reveal their core personality.

Demme illuminates Carter's spiritual beliefs and stubborn tenacity, and shows how humble earthiness, a relentless work ethic, and a restless intelligence prepare him to deal with the complexities of a world he both embraces and wants to leave a better place. If Man from Plains doesn't turn Jimmy Carter into the Johnny Cash of former presidents, it wasn't for a lack of trying.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 11-12; 4 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13; 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 18-19; and 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20. Call 313-833-3237.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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