'Man From Plains': Jimmy Carter Hits the Road Again

The former president on book tour in Jonathan Demme's documentary
The former president on book tour in Jonathan Demme's documentary "Jimmy Carter Man From Plains." (By Alex Cohn -- Sony Pictures Classics)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007

"Jimmy Carter Man From Plains" is Jonathan Demme's documentary portrait of the 39th president of the United States during one of the most controversial moments of his post-White House career. In 2006 he wrote "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," about Israeli policy in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, and came immediately under fire for choosing such a provocative title; "Man From Plains" follows Carter as he travels the country on his book tour and as the controversy surrounding the book builds.

If you feel like you know how the movie plays out, you're not in for many surprises from "Man From Plains," which doesn't offer much new to anyone already familiar with Carter, his book and the debates he touched off. For the uninitiated, however, Demme's film provides an absorbing, if largely hagiographic, portrait of a man who has redefined the idea of post-presidential retirement. Carter, now 83, emerges as a slightly tetchier, more impatient version of the grinning, beatific man Americans either loved or loathed in the 1970s. Now a Baptist preacher and a poet among many, many other things, he's clearly a man on a mission, whether it's building homes in post-Katrina New Orleans with Habitat for Humanity or convincing Americans that current policies in the Middle East are bad for Israel and the United States.

That argument isn't nearly as incendiary as the title of Carter's book would suggest, and Demme goes to great pains to make Carter's position clear, filming the author as he explains his position to Larry King, Charlie Rose, Terry Gross, Diane Rehm and an endless parade of journalists. (The most shrewd and sophisticated interview, not surprisingly, is with an Israeli reporter.) Whereas these sequences amount to little more than clip jobs, Demme also follows Carter to his modest home in Plains, Ga., where he can be seen praying with his wife, Rosalynn, preaching at his church and greeting neighbors at dinner on the grounds. Then it's back to the hustings, where Carter shows the grit and tirelessness that made him such a strong, if unlikely, presidential candidate in 1976. Underneath that toothy smile, one senses, there lurks a political street fighter.

But we never get to see Carter's ruthless side, although there are glimpses when he snaps at an aide or becomes testy during a particularly trying phone interview. With those few and fleeting exceptions, "Man From Plains" is content simply to go along for the ride as Carter crisscrosses the country thumping the tub. (Demme does his best to tart things up by adding screen titles in eccentric typefaces and a rich musical score by Alejandro Escovedo and Djamel Ben Yelles.) There's a revealing moment when he's embraced by one of the former hostages in Iran. And for scholars of Middle East politics, one of the film's most riveting sequences features Carter describing the peace agreement he brokered between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat in 1978. Among the film's most poignant moments are encounters with Palestinian readers, whose gratitude to Carter is all the more palpable for being nearly wordless.

While "Man From Plains" never quite gains the narrative momentum of Demme's past documentaries ("Stop Making Sense," "The Agronomist," "Neil Young: Heart of Gold"), it goes a long way toward reminding viewers of the essential role Carter played as a peacemaker in the Middle East and, by extension, the essential role the United States must continue to play in that embattled region.

For the high stakes of the issues Carter raises, there's surprisingly little dramatic tension in "Man From Plains." If the film has a climax, it's when he speaks at Brandeis University, after refusing to debate critic Alan Dershowitz at the height of the book's controversy. Things are tense, but the students receive Carter with a magnificent, even moving degree of intelligence, respect and civil dissent. As he encourages them to organize their own delegation to Israel and the occupied territories and they respond with waves of applause, it's one of those rare, triumphant moments when the better angels seem to win the day.

Jimmy Carter Man From Plains (125 minutes, at Landmark's E Street and AMC Loews Shirlington 7) is rated PG for some thematic elements and brief disturbing images.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company