Man From Plains: The Film That Might Make Jimmy Carter a Movie Star
There's a memorable moment in Man From Plains, the acclaimed new documentary starring former President Jimmy Carter, that takes place on a commercial airplane. In the middle of the flight, Carter makes his way down the aisle, greeting and shaking the passengers' hands. The audience in the theater thinks this scene will quickly dissolve or that Carter will eventually go from recognizing each person to simply waving. But instead the camera lingers long enough to show that Carter intends to meet every single passenger on the plane. They seem stunned, flattered and elated that such an important man would take the time out just to say hello.
Earlier in the film, as Carter watches one of the interns from the Carter Center deliver a speech, his face beams with his trademark toothy grin. When she finishes and Carter reaches the podium, he begins to tear up as he thanks the interns, genuinely moved by their enthusiasm and dedication to the causes he holds dear.
Man From Plains is filled with touching, lovely scenes such as these, and the film succeeds best when it attempts to be a character study of Carter. Directed by Academy Award winner Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), the film follows Carter during his media tour for his infamous 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The film touches on the uproar the book's title caused and the former president's passionate feelings about the crisis between Israel and Palestine. It also weaves together anecdotes and footage from Carter's triumph at the Camp David Accords in 1978.
Although the exploration of the book tour encompasses the majority of the film's languid two-hour-plus running time, it is probably the least interesting thing about it. Carter endures interview after interview where the host questioning him has clearly not even read his book and must repeatedly offer explanations for the presence of the word "apartheid" in the title. The protesters who mock him outside book signings are often grotesque in their ignorance, and the film does a good job of investigating how simply trying to open a dialogue on this subject has now become controversial.
All in all, Demme's film doesn't delve much deeper into the content of the book than the superficial cable news shows already have. We see that Carter has the best of intentions, and we get a sense that his book makes a simple, reasonable plea for an end to violence and an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory, but there is little new light shed on the subject of the crisis or the substance of the book. Carter makes a strong point of how there have been no peace talks between Israel and Palestine since Bush took office and how "not many people care about that, but I do." But, for the most part, the movie only soars when the focus is on the remarkable post-presidential life of Carter and not the polarizing subject of Israel and Palestine, which he boldly chose to take on.
The footage from and about the 1978 Camp David Accords is particularly engrossing. Rosalyn Carter shares a fascinating anecdote about how some personally autographed photos Carter gave Begin for his grandkids helped change the then-Israeli prime minister's mind about signing a peace agreement with Egypt. We also catch glimpses of Carter being ahead of the curve on energy issues, and we see how his gentle sense of humor endears him to everyone from celebrity talk show hosts to little kids.
In the 2006 through 2007 footage, what comes across is Carter's sincerity, tenacity and basic humanity. Whether playfully flirting with a makeup girl on the Tavis Smiley Show or building a house for a displaced group of musicians from New Orleans, he is a lovable and inspiring presence throughout the proceedings.
Man From Plains lacks the urgency and passion of, say, An Inconvenient Truth, and it lacks the jaw-dropping revelations of Michael Moore's Sicko. What it does have is a moving, redemptive portrait of a president and a presidency that has been unfairly maligned and reduced to a punchline for far too long. Few could see this film and its beautiful montage in the finale -- which takes you from Plains, Ga., to Ghana and other places all over the globe where Carter has done great work -- and not leave feeling that he is a patriotic, sensitive and humane man.
Man From Plains opened on Oct. 26 in select cities.