Man from Plains

About a year ago former president Jimmy Carter launched on a national tour to promote his new book “Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid.” Filmmaker Jonathan Demme tagged along to document the tour and record a nation’s reaction to the new, if short-lived, controversy surrounding the book. Slated for release later this Fall, Man From Plains (Plains refers to Carter’s Georgia hometown) shows both the private and the public life of the former president.

Early in the documentary Carter is shown setting the table with his wife in their half-darkened country home (when he was still president Carter encouraged the nation to curtail power use), riding his bicycle across cotton fields and building homes in storm-devastated areas. Carter’s drive to accomplish stuff must have been divinely decreed. How many of us could power through a multi-city book tour at age 84? The amounts of energy expanded by our former president is astonishing. One day Carter is shown driving nails into plywood and the next he makes an appearance at the Carter Institute to give a talk and meet the new interns. But there are also countless book signings and interviews with the media. Demme was there for the Charlie Rose interview and also for Jay Leno.

But the filmmaker remained completely outside of the frame, city and state names made to look as if they were really straddling the landscape his only imprimatur. Early in Man From Plains Carter is shown driving with Demme across his lands in Georgia. He points here and there, reciting the trees’ names and wild life. He explains that the land has been in his family for several families and he was virtually raised by the cotton-pickers working on it since his mother was away working for most of the day. Suddenly he switches the subject to Palestine, speaking of its ancestral land where centuries-old trees were planed and decrying its removal from Palestinian sovereignty as a result of the region’s latest political alterations.

Sometimes Carter is shown riding in a police motorcade through the blanketing night in deserted urban stretches, completely silent. What do these moments belie? Introspection or fear? Carter seems impenetrable, or more accurately, stoic, all features of a Southern upbringing combined with the restrained character of an elderly statesman. Perhaps his religious fervor acts as protective shield (he is shown attending service with his wife and says grace before all meals). Ambiguously enough, however, Carter gets choked up several times. Once, during a speech at the Carter Institute his voice breaks while he praises the new interns.

As is evident from the many interviewers Carter meets with, few read the book beforehand. Maybe the book’s needlessly incendiary title had such awesome stopping power as to lead it to its eventual demise. It seems that in trying to ante up a strategy for peace, Carter stirred new controversy of his own. Countless interviewers are shown asking him why he chose such an ambiguous title. In the end, Carter seems to come out of the whirling media controversy relatively unscathed but it wouldn’t be too presumptuous to suppose Carter won’t be touring again anytime soon. It is difficult to say how the film will be received at its late October 2007 release. If nothing else, the film will be received for its immense aesthetic value. Demme crafted a superb documentary, the frills and frissons of a book tour mired in controversy are all here. Superfluity is not.

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