Despite a steady image rehabilitation through bookwriting, diplomacy, and highly publicized work with Habitat for Humanity, Jimmy Carter has been regarded by many as a failed, ineffectual U.S. President defined in part by his 1979 negotiation with Iranian terrorists. That charge and many others are answered in a new documentary by Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs). While there's little doubt that Man From Plains amounts to hagiography on Demme's part, it's also surprisingly gripping viewing for over two hours.
Demme follows Carter on a national tour to promote his controversial book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The blatantly provocative book takes Carter out of his comfort zone of writing about faith, the golden years, and domestic democratic ideals, and highlights Carter's much-debated foreign-policy experience. By decrying Israel's arguable jailer mentality of raising walls and, worse, destructively intruding into Palestinian land, Carter shows his sympathies primarily lie with the Palestinian cause, though he emphatically upholds the ultimate value of peace for both sides in the conflict, and acknowledges and condemns the crimes of Palestinian extremists.
Demme's film captures Carter discussing these points, but it's as interesting as a portrait of American and international media, and the process of moving books in an increasingly illiterate country. It's remarkable to watch the 82-year-old Carter keep up with a schedule that men a third of his age can't handle, on an often hostile media circuit that includes the Los Angeles Times, Terry Gross, Charlie Rose, Tavis Smiley, Larry King, Wolf Blitzer, Judy Woodruff, Al Franken, Jay Leno, Israeli TV, and Al-Jazeera. We see the infotainment mosaic at its best and worst, including the strong suspicion that many of the interviewers haven't read the book in full.
The film also captures the minor dramas of Carter's attempts to get the word out, including a protest that illustrates the Israeli-Palestinian divide by turning nasty outside of a Borders store, and an ongoing conflict with Brandeis University, which initially turns down Carter's offer of a free speaking engagement unless he'll agree to debate Alan Dershowitz. Threaded through this documentation is an intimate and inspirational character study of an old but vital man eager to restart conversation about peace in the Middle East, and boldly undeterred by the personal consequences.
Man From Plains gets a typically excellent audio-visual presentation from Sony in a special edition that includes some very nice bonus features. First, director Jonathan Demme and producer Neda Armian share a screen-specific commentary track that provides a more personal take on Carter and the film's production. If there was any question of his swoony allegiance to his subject, Demme ends it, going so far as to put Carter in the company of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Over the course of the commentary, Demme explains various ways that he cemented this point of view.
"Bonus Scenes" (32:16 with a "Play All" feature) include "A Room at the Ritz," "Book Signing in Chicago," "The Puppet Story—Family Planning with Miss Lillian," "Where is Elizabeth," "The World's Fastest Book Signer—Simon & Schuster Interviews," "Haunted House Story," "Boyhood Home—Thoughts on Segregation," At Home in Plains—Post-Tour Interview," "President Carter Learns of Anwar Sadat's Death," and "Global Health Lecture at Emory University." All are worth watching, though none are scintillating enough for Demme to second-guess their excision.
"Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains: The Music Sessions (33:58) puts the spotlight on what may be Demme's favorite aspect of filmmaking. The featurette gives us extensive access to the soundtrack recording sessions over three days in New York City, and it's nifty to see artists such as Gillian Welch make it happen. Lastly, Sony includes trailers for My Kid COuld Paint That, Steep, Who Killed the Electric Car?, Why We Fight, Vitus, Offside, God Grew Tired of Us, The Fog of War, Sketches of Frank Gehry, and the promo Blu-Ray Disc is High Definition!.
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