From George Washington to Bill Clinton, the tradition for United States presidents after leaving office has been to recede into the background: maybe farm a little, distill some corn whiskey, play some golf, eat some McDonald's, earn some speaker's fees, campaign for a son or spouse, but mostly just kick back and coast through the golden years. The only conspicuous exception in living memory has been Jimmy Carter who since leaving the White House in 1981 has established the Carter Center, negotiated with North Korea on behalf of the Clinton administration, participated in international elections monitoring and dispute resolution, worked with numerous human rights, global public health, and anti-poverty initiatives including Habitat for Humanity, and written more than 20 books. He has received numerous accolades for his post-presidential work including the Nobel Peace Prize "for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development."
Carter, now 83, has earned a reputation for not shying away from controversy. He's traveled to Cuba, Syria, and Venezuela without the endorsement of the US government. He urged negotiation not invasion of Iraq, and has called for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. In 2006, Simon & Schuster published Carter's most public, extended, and explicit criticism of the Israeli-occupation of the West Bank to date, provocatively-entitled Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.
Filmmaker Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) and a film crew accompanied Carter on the book tour. The result, Jimmy Carter Man from Plains, is a cinéma-vérité style feature-length documentary. Using hand-held cameras and natural light, Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn intimately captured the scope of Carter's grueling days on tour.
The film, like the title and the protagonist, begins in Plains, Georgia (pop. 638). Here Demme establishes Carter as a devote Christian, a comitted husband, and a man happily engaged in small-town community and agriculture. Having established Carter as a man truly comfortable ensconced in small town life, the film moves on to the first stop of book tour, New York City, with ever-present secret service, numerous press interviews, and a lengthy book signing at a Manhattan Borders.
The central theme of the press interviews that Demme would have the viewers take away is that most of the media, and in fact most of the critics of the book, hadn't bothered to actually read it. With a few notable exceptions, the media interviews are about the title of the book and the surrounding controversy, not the substance of Carter's arguments which albeit overly simplified is this: Israeli's construction of a wall that deeply intrudes into the West Bank separating Palestinians on either side is a land grab; laws which prohibit Palestinians from freely moving within the occupied territory, and which otherwise treat Palestinians differently than Israelis within the West Bank is in some ways more reprehensible than the legal discrimination blacks experienced in South Africa under the minority white Apartheid government.
Though Demme is obviously critical of the media for not engaging the substance of Carter's argument, there's little substantive investigation in this documentary either. Demme includes a bit of footage which illustrate both the impact of the wall on Palestinians and the impact of suicide bombers on Israelis, but he neither asks questions of Carter on camera nor includes much expert criticism of Carter's position other than a few minutes with Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz. For the most part Demme is as content as the media he criticizes to downplay the substance and focus on the man and the controversy.
Aside from the tour footage, the film also includes side trips to the Carter Center and New Orleans, and archival footage about Carter's time in office, most notably footage concerning the Camp David Accord Carter brokered between Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. This archival material and an interview with Rosalyn is the highpoint of the film leaving this viewer wishing that Demme had made a more expansive film about President Carter than he did.
Jimmy Carter Man from Plains has an engaging score by Djamel Ben Yelles and Alejandro Escovedo which nicely fills the space under and around the dialogue, and there are a few memorable songs to help as well, most notably two rap songs about speaking truth to power from Brother Ali.
Jimmy Carter Man from Plains sports uniquely environmentally-friendly, albeit flimsy, packaging. The disc is housed in a paper case which corresponds in height and width to a standard DVD case, but is no thicker than perhaps 3 pieces of construction paper.
Jimmy Carter Man from Plains was recorded on high definition video with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, but intersperses lower quality archival footage. The DVD renders this material well providing an anamorphic enhancement. The image looks fairly sharp and generally clear from digital distortion, though the colors look slightly too warm.
There's a good quality 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track which grounds the dialogue front and center and makes good use of the surround for the soundtrack.
Extras include 32 minutes of additional scenes, and a 33-minute featurette on the making of the soundtrack. There's also a full-length commentary featuring producer Neda Armian and director Jonathan Demme. Demme and Armian clearly demonstrate a deep and earnest respect and admiration for Carter, but this is apparent in the film itself. The extra scenes don't add anything of value to the story; the music featurette is painfully dull; and, though there are a few interesting comments about the filming process and Carter on the commentary, most viewers can comfortably skip the extras without feeling they're missing anything of value. Finally, the disc includes ten trailers for other Sony Pictures on DVD, but not one for this film.
Jimmy Carter Man from Plains is essentially a vérité documentary of former President Carter's 2006 book tour for Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The documentary will be appealing to left-leaning political junkies, but it lacks the scope, depth or drama needed to appeal to a broader audience.