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Happy Trails: Jonathan Demme’s “Jimmy Carter Man from Plains”

Happy Trails: Jonathan Demme's "Jimmy Carter Man from Plains"

Titled like an old-fashioned Western where a man in a white hat gallops in to save a town from ruthless villains, Jonathan Demme‘s “Jimmy Carter Man from Plains” portrays the 39th president as an intrepid political lone ranger, unafraid of provoking discussion on sensitive international matters at an age when most retired representatives ride inoffensively into the sunset. Following Carter in autumn 2006 on a publicity tour in support of his controversial book “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid,” Demme reveals Carter as a highly intelligent, dedicated, religious, humble, and concerned man constantly engaged with the world around him, and for that the film is time well spent with a human being who, even if one doesn’t agree with his ideas, must be at least admired for his unwavering integrity. Nonetheless, this is a limited documentary, unavoidably dependent on Carter’s public speaking appearances and talk and radio show interviews for much of its material, making “Man From Plains” a compromised product and nowhere near a full accounting of Carter’s legacy.

A preliminary visit with Carter in the small Georgian town of the title where he grew up and still lives, on a family estate dating back to the 1830s, establishes Carter as a man of deep roots and loyalty. He stands over the grave of his caretaker and remembers her fondly, and later at a dinner to celebrate the success of his book he pays a tearful tribute to his mother, whose devotion to her work as a nurse and her spiritual faith were profound influences. We don’t get much more personal with Carter, who, once on tour, maintains his Southern, plainspoken demeanor but is reflected through the prism of American media outlets, from NPR to “The Tonight Show” to Charlie Rose to Wolf Blitzer to Tavis Smiley.

In this sense “Man from Plains” charts the differing and evolving reactions to “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid,” in which Carter denounces Israel’s infringement and control of Palestine as the major obstacle for peace in the region. Carter articulately defends a thesis that comes under fire not only for its politics but also for plagiarism and shoddy research. The interesting aspect of the controversy is how much the status of Carter colors it–his ideas are nothing unheard of and certainly not radical, but seem taboo for somebody of Carter’s reputation to voice and stand behind. For Carter to do so is courageous, and the defensive and predictable reactions to “Palestine Peace” offer proof as to how far this country is from an open dialogue about the conflict and America’s support of questionable Israeli policies.

However, before the stir over “Palestine Peace” climaxes with Carter’s protested engagement at Brandeis University there’s a lot of filler to get through, a lot of scenes of Carter being shuttled from hotel to car, from hotel to car, scenes of Carter on planes (he still flies commercial), at book signings, and so on. Harmless stuff, but there’s far too much of it, and when it crowds out further explorations of his presidency (the Iranian hostage crisis and the oil shortage are glossed over, the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt is played up) or reduces his pontifications on the reconciliation between faith and science and America’s regressive policies on oil dependency and international diplomacy to sound bites, “Man from Plains” indulges in the same simplifications as the unwitting media players caught in its sights.

Still, Demme understands Carter’s importance too well not to capture it at an angle. Even if only one side of Carter emerges, it’s one that comes across as a beacon of thoughtful advocacy (he’s also involved himself in the reconstruction of New Orleans, Habitat for Humanity, and Darfur) at a time when a certain current administration flounders in heedless misadventure.

[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer ata href=”http://www.reverseshot.com” TARGET=”_blank”>Reverse Shot. He also writes for L magazine, Stop Smiling, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon.]

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