What has Jimmy Carter not done? This relentlessly busy and straight-arrow former president is a man with many missions. His causes are, to name just a few: peace in the Middle East, guinea worm eradication, homes for the poor, morality in public life and stern criticism of the Iraq war.
Jimmy Carter Man From Plains, director Jonathan Demme’s inspiring documentary portrait of Carter, touches on many of the kaleidoscopic variations of the Carter character by observing him in both casual and formal wear. Sporting jeans and a leather bomber jacket, Carter could be any Southern man of a certain age, driving through his family’s land, eating quail marinated in cream-of-mushroom soup at a Georgia open-air barbecue or teaching Sunday school at the Maranatha Baptist Church in his hometown.
Less familiar, but just as vivid and forthright, is Carter in statesman mode, debating Wolf Blitzer on CNN about Carter’s vision of the Middle East or holding his own with Charlie Rose. Carter is refreshingly real: variously snippy, modest, charming, witty, irritated and scarily erudite. He is also far more combative and easily riled than the grinning caricature from peanut country to which history often reduces him. Pity those who interview Carter without having actually read his latest book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, for lo his wrath is mighty.
Carter alludes to the animosity his book inspired at many junctures in the film, but the furious crowds outside book signings, peeved rabbis and the tongue-lashings of Alan Dershowitz make the toxicity crystal clear as Carter defends his views over the course of a multicity tour for the controversial book. Backed up by his own extensive travel and obvious sympathy for the underdog, the book lays out Carter’s condemnation of the Israeli encroachment into Palestinian territories and the building of a security wall as a symbol of human-rights injustices. An aversion to walls both literal and metaphorical is shown to be a continual Carter theme.
Demme has injected solid lefty values into his Hollywood work (Philadelphia, The Silence of the Lambs) and also has tackled the man-of-the-people doc before, in The Agronomist and Neil Young: Heart of Gold. Demme may go too far for some in virtually nominating Carter for sainthood, but others will appreciate Demme’s human portrait of Carter’s legacy past and present.
Demme interweaves archival footage, as when he shows Carter working with the Egyptians and Israelis to sign the Camp David peace accords. Such historical detours give a sense of scope to Demme’s appreciative take on a man in the twilight of his life. More recently, Carter is shown leaving his first-class seat during an airline flight to shake hands with the passengers in coach; welling up with tears over the contributions of young Carter Center interns; granting an interview to an Emory University newspaper reporter; or chatting up a gregarious African-American makeup artist. As seen through Demme’s eyes, Carter is a man who defiantly walks the talk, showing a consideration for both the humble and the mighty that seems in the truest spirit of both diplomacy and Christianity.
Man From Plains might be termed a “corrective” documentary, much in the way 2006’s Ralph Nader doc An Unreasonable Man offered an alternative, more complete vision.
Demme tends to frame Carter’s television interviews from within control rooms – whether by choice or necessity – suggesting a man operating from within the maw of the media beast. A hip-hop-infused soundtrack and Demme’s use of ornate fonts to indicate place and date also put style on the front burner, giving Carter, at times, a super-funky cloak perhaps meant to appeal to the younger set. But such stylistic flourishes also prove canny for foregrounding this aging man’s vitality, topicality and importance.
As Tavis Smiley notes in the film, like Harry Belafonte and Bill Cosby, instead of blunting or softening him, old age has made Carter more outspoken than ever. At its heart, Man From Plains is a portrait of a folksy but cosmopolitan former president whose missions may be varied though his worldview is fairly consistent: dismantling the walls that separate people.