Jonathan Demme, who directed Tom Hanks to an Oscar as the AIDS-afflicted lawyer in Philadelphia, may be the most well-meaning filmmaker in Hollywood; Jimmy Carter, winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development,” is certainly the most well-meaning ex-President in recent American history. And so Demme’s documentary portrait, Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains, has no surfeit of good intentions. In fact, running over two hours, they’re nearly suffocating.
Basically a vérité-style infomercial that follows Carter during the course of a late 2006 book tour to promote his bestselling critique of Israel’s West Bank occupation, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, the film provides perfunctory background on its subject’s piety and down-home Georgia roots, then plunges along with him into the media maelstrom. Carter stubbornly fences with Charlie Rose, gamely educates Larry King, and cheerfully signs a vast quantity of books. It’s striking to see the number of grateful Palestinian-Americans who turn out to thank him, and it’s notable that people still ask about his handling of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.
Carter is scarcely the first commentator to characterize the enforced, unequal separation that exists in Israel’s occupied territories as apartheid—the Israeli left has called it that for years. But, waving the term like a red cape before the American public, Carter has been notably disingenuous in exploiting it. Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid actually gives the implied analogy between Israel and white supremacist South Africa short shrift, as does the film. The conditions of the occupation are largely unexplored. Demme does, however, give sound bites to Carter’s critics, notably Allan Dershowitz—who cannot resist noting that he supported Carter for president. (There’s something about the place that Carter calls the Holy Land that brings out the Holier Than Thou.) A montage of Israeli bulldozers and Palestinian suicide bombers triggers a flashback to Carter’s shining moment at the 1978 Camp David negotiations, one of America’s few diplomatic triumphs in the Middle East and the ultimate example of Carter’s do-goodism.
A detour to some habitat-building in New Orleans aside, Jimmy Carter never strays far from the controversy. (Carter defends his book’s inflammatory title by calling the West Bank worse than South Africa—citing, for example, the existence of highways constructed exclusively for settler use; Jews picket a book signing in Phoenix.) But neither does the movie delve into the situation. Carter’s personality, not Palestine’s predicament, is Demme’s focus. A benign presence, Carter flies coach, mingling easily with his fellow passengers. At once soft and steely, reasonable and unyielding, he sits for interviews with both Israeli TV and Al Jazeera. (The latter is notable for the evident surprise expressed by correspondent Riz Khan when Carter blames Palestinians as well as Israelis.) At least as much time, however, is given to a scene in which Carter banters with the make-up artist who is applying his pre-TV pancake.
In the end, managing finally to deliver a lecture at Brandeis without having to debate Dershowitz as a condition, the 82-year-old former president is evidently weary. He resents that he’s been called a liar, a bigot, an anti-Semite, and a plagiarist—as well he might. He’s just doing what he can. So too Demme, who tries to heighten the drama with strategic infusions of faux-Arab and faux-gospel mood music. But a book tour isn’t even a political campaign, and traveling with Jimmy Carter isn’t exactly going backstage with the Rolling Stones. It’s a measure of Demme’s quiet desperation that he would cite, as one of the movie’s “excitements,” the opportunity to see NPR radio interviewer Terry Gross in the flesh.