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Former president Jimmy Carter wrote a book called Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme followed Carter around the nation on his book tour and videotaped the interviews, meetings, and book signings. From that footage comes a solid documentary and a stirring tribute.

Although Carter’s book is ostensibly the topic of the day, Demme makes the film more about Carter’s life and career than this one specific book.

Apples to Apples

Carter is happy to meet friends and detractors alike
Carter is happy to meet friends and detractors alike

Some presidents — maybe even most of them — keep busy after they leave office. Few of them have done it with as much class as Jimmy Carter. Demme’s movie captures Carter’s energy, work ethic, honesty, and humanitarianism.

Founder of The Carter Center, author of dozens of books, builder of homes, diplomat, and statesman, Jimmy Carter is a man who has dedicated his life to service. And he’s still doing it; most of the footage for Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains is new footage, not historical. Carter is not resting on his laurels, although he has enough to stuff a comfortable mattress.

One of the earliest questions audiences might ask, and one that continued to haunt me throughout the movie, is whether such an impressive and moving portrait could be made about our current president, 30 years from now. Will W be on a book tour, speaking to students, meeting with protesters, answering tough questions, and building houses for the poor?

Frankly, that’s hard to imagine.

Let’s Talk

Two of the most refreshing aspects to Carter are his honesty and his open-mindedness. Demme captures these traits, not in an instant, but by sticking with Carter for weeks and weeks. All through the book tour, Carter is happy to meet people and answer questions, never afraid of demonstrators or hostile interviewers.

One radio caller asks why Carter didn’t bomb Iran when they held American hostages. Carter says that he’s proud that he didn’t. Not a single Iranian civilian was killed and all the hostages made it home alive. Had he bombed Iran, neither of those would be true.

Carter learns of a group of rabbis in Arizona who plan to protest his appearance. He actually arranges to meet them in person after his book-store appearance. When his publicist offers to tell them “no media,” Carter says “let ‘em bring it.” He is willing to listen and has nothing to hide. Ironically, the rabbis, given the chance to make their case on camera, refuse to allow their images and words to be used in the film. They make Carter look all the better by comparison.

That said, Carter may have ducked a debate with Alan Dershowitz. But Demme gives Dershowitz enough rope to hang himself. After Dershowitz believes the worst of Carter, discovers it’s not true, and then calculates whether or not to use it against him anyway (he decides not to), it’s easy to understand why Carter thought a debate with Dershowitz was going to be counterproductive.

Loser by a Landslide

There is hope for bitter partisans hoping to score some cheap points against Carter. Toward the end of the film Carter tells the camera that the Bush administration has just told him not to travel to Damascus because of tensions between Syria and the United States. Carter offers to go as a representative of the U.S., to deliver a message from the current administration. After all, Carter knows the Syrian leader personally. But the Bush team turns him down again. For a moment Carter looks like an emotionally fragile, powerless naïf being snubbed again by Republicans with power.

Gloat in the moment while you can, because as soon as you consider whether maybe Bush is making a mistake — after all, here is a man who won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the most important Israeli/Arab peace deal ever, offering to personally deliver your message to the leader of an Arab country bordering Israel — well it looks less like a washed up Jimmy Carter and more like a clueless Bush.

Nevertheless, that scene neatly captures two sides of Carter: the failed leader who lost to Reagan in a landslide, and the gentle statesman who has dedicated his life to service.

Editing a Movie

By far the most interesting thing about Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains is its subject. As a movie, it leaves something to be desired. Aside from the usual complaints about documentaries (they’re shot on video, they look cheap), Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains has as many misses as hits.

Halfway through the movie — about the time you wonder whether the movie is going somewhere — it looks like Demme won the jackpot. At the end of the tour, the rabbis in Arizona are going to protest. Suddenly the film has shape and structure as each stop leads to the big confrontation. But the promise of a conflict and a climax is denied when the rabbis wimp out. So Demme’s movie ends up not having as good a story to tell as it could have.

Also, the movie is overlong. It runs for more than two hours, and a lot of that feels like padding. Carter goes on The Tonight Show, and Demme just runs the segment, apparently in its entirety.

Still, Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains offers lots of food for thought, on Palestine, on statesmanship, on the presidency, on media, on partisanship, and more. It’s a great conversation starter, and worth a look, especially if you have time to talk politics with friends after the movie.