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Jimmy Carter Man From Plains

Jimmy Carter Man From Plains

Director:Jonathan Demme
Release Date:2007

By Steve Erickson | Posted 11/7/2007

In Jimmy Carter Man From Plains, the former president gives a speech at a church. Discussing the divisions within Christianity over issues such as evolution and the war in Iraq, he acknowledges that there are equally devout people on both sides. Personally, he sees no reason why science and religion are incompatible--his background in nuclear physics makes the universe's wonders seem all the more marvelous. Still, he manages to discuss these divisions evenhandedly, in the midst of a cultural climate that could hardly be more polarized.

For the first of many occasions, Man From Plains establishes Carter's credentials as a decent, well-intentioned man. He certainly appears more likable than the average politician. However, as the subject of a 126-minute documentary, Carter's air of serene benevolence kills off drama and becomes so extreme that it begs belief. Even as pro-Israeli and Palestinian protesters scream hateful slogans outside a book signing, he floats above it all. Jonathan Demme's documentary does as well--few films about American politicians have been this worshipful.

Man From Plains begins with a 1979 clip of Carter's mother, Lillian, on The Tonight Show. From there, it moves to the present, as Carter takes Demme on a tour of the land owned by his family. He hints that his devotion to the land has led to an identification with the Palestinians. The bulk of the documentary depicts Carter's contentious 2006 book tour, undertaken to promote Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

Despite its running time, Man From Plains suffers from a sound-bite sensibility. To its detriment, it accurately reproduces what it must be like to get asked the same questions dozens of times. Almost everyone who interviews Carter brings up his book's title first, calling it "controversial" or "provocative." For his part, Carter repeatedly emphasizes his respect for Israel and that his book's criticisms of the country are aimed entirely at its treatment of the Palestinian territories.

The documentary goes out of its way to emphasize Carter's humility, showing him bonding with TV makeup artists, spending his weekends building homes for Hurricane Katrina victims, and ending his book tour by flying off to Sudan. Despite all this, Carter remains somewhat enigmatic. How did this low-key man get the chutzpah to run for office and accuse Israel of practicing apartheid? One of his chief critics, Harvard University professor Alan Dershowitz, suggests that Carter runs from debate and only accepts criticism on his own terms. Like most powerful people, Carter seems to live inside a bubble. Unfortunately, Demme's hagiographic movie speaks from inside that same bubble.

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