Jonathan Demme's eclectic resume includes projects that range from Silence of the Lambs to Philadelphia to Swimming to Cambodia. His recent documentary portrait of the 39 th U.S. President, Jimmy Carter Man from Plains, doesn't rank among his stronger artistic works, but it remains well worth watching due to its subject matter. While including vignette highlights from Carter's life, the film primarily chronicles the former president's recent book tour promoting his controversial best-selling Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. What works best is the way Demme's camera allows us into Carter's life intimately enough to discern his character, and Carter reveals himself as a sincere, good hearted man with high standards and principles. Unlike former presidents Bush and Clinton, Carter seeks no speaker fees from universities to discuss issues dear to his heart.
Although no one can argue that Carter ranks among the top tier of U.S. Presidents, few can deny that Jimmy Carter easily surpasses all who have held the office for what he's accomplished after his presidency. A well deserved Nobel Prize winner, Carter has authored numerous books, champions and works directly with Habitats for Humanity, and works energetically with his Carter Center to promote human rights around the globe. Even at the advanced age of 83, Carter continues a dizzying travel schedule of appearances, meetings, and speeches. His primary dream remains striving to broker peace in the Middle East, and the documentary vividly shows how his book tour energizes him.
The film begins in Plains, where Carter teaches Sunday school regularly and attends community picnics. He comes across as a friendly regular guy without pretense—no visible ego that proclaims that he was once President of the United States. He holds hands with wife Rosalynn while slowly strolling, and later is seen quietly composing text at home. Soon the pace quickens as he boards a plane to begin a lively book tour—made controversial by his deliberate selection of the word "apartheid" in the title.
That word choice automatically sets off knee jerk negative reactions from pro-Israeli factions that dominate the U.S. political scene—less so in Israel, where the situation is better known and debated thoroughly. As explained during the film, Carter was appalled at the treatment of Palestinians he saw firsthand while visiting the West Bank and Gaza strip, and came to the conclusion that peace in the region would remain impossible as long as Israel continued its extreme discriminatory policies. People who read Carter's book with an open mind will recognize the nuances of Carter's stance and his recognition of the challenges and complexities, and the film demonstrates how the public media operates in such a forum.
Although frustrated by talk show hosts who obviously have not read his book, Carter remains peaceful and composed while dealing with their queries (though he does express to his publicist privately how a couple of radio show hosts are "obnoxious" after politely ending a phone call). An amazing humanitarian, Carter obviously is heavily influenced by his family—he lovingly talks about how his great grand daddy farmed the land, shows the area once worked by share-croppers and speaks of their great impact on his life, and tears up when describing his mother's return to India when he sent her there on an official state mission. She had once served in the Peace Corps near Mumbai, and had established many connections with the local people—demonstrated when some 12,000 surprised her with a celebratory greeting when she visited.
Demme's 125 minute film could be trimmed a bit without losing much context, as the numerous NPR, PBS, CNN, and talk show appearances tend to repeat material; however, the inside intimate portrait of Jimmy Carter's book tour routine reveals his character like no other film to date. For that reason alone, it deserves a wider viewing so that more can appreciate what this man has done. Many of us hope to somehow make this a better world. Jimmy Carter Man from Plains shows us how to turn this dream into reality.