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Jimmy Carter Man From Plains (2007)
If you weren't glued to the news channels in late 2006 you might have missed the controversy: Other words started being used to describe this gentle man, words that until that point would have been thought unlikely. Words like: Anti-Semite. Racist. Plagiarist. Hatemonger. Terrorist sympathizer.
What happened? Carter wrote a book about the Middle East called Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, and you can imagine what happened next. Jewish critics piled on, the aim being squarely on the word 'apartheid,' which many took to mean that Carter was accusing Israel of being essentially no better than old South Africa. The response is furious and ongoing.
Renowned director Jonathan Demme captures Carter -- with a degree of access I can't imagine possible with any other former President -- while he goes on a national book tour for Palestine, doing every talk show in the country and signing a mountain of copies of the text at every stop. And while diatribes are fired at the man from all sides, protests erupt at colleges where he speaks, and old friends abandon him amidst the controversy, you'll never see a man accept criticism with more grace and composure. His strongest word throughout the ordeal is to express 'dismay.'
I didn't expect to like Jimmy Carter Man from Plains, but I found it enrapturing from start to finish. I have no strong feelings one way or another toward the West Bank situation, and can understand both sides of the argument, but despite my basic neutrality Carter, at 83 years old, proves that he is still trying to mend fences and stop fighting, just like he did with his historic Camp David Accords in 1978. Whether you find fault with Israel in building walls on Palestine territory, which is the bulk of Carter's complaint, you can't help but agree with him in the end that they probably are doing more harm than good on the international stage.
But Jimmy Carter Man from Plains is not a movie about Palestine (just like Palestine, Carter repeatedly reminds people, is not a book about Israel), it's a movie about Jimmy Carter. Demme captures the man day and night, unfettered. We hear him in private conversation with Rosalynn, shaking hands with everyday folks, and pondering how to respond to a question from countless tough interviewers. You want to learn how to compose yourself in public? Watch this movie. My favorite single moment, one of the greatest scenes in all of moviedom, comes near the end of the film: An exhausted Carter falls asleep on the plane, and his burly bodyguard, who's obviously had his message pounded into him for weeks, finally picks up Palestine and begins reading. Change starts with a single person, doesn't it?
Demme's film isn't perfect. There's plenty of throwaway stuff like Carter building houses in New Orleans (we've seen those same shots for years), and too much time given to people we don't care about. Carter's main foe in the film turns out to be Alan Dershowitz, and a lengthy segment is given over to Dershowitz debating with his staff whether to 'go after' Carter for using the phrase 'so-called Holocaust.' It ultimately amounts to nothing.
The funny thing is that listening to Carter talk about these events is far more enrapturing than the events themselves. His audience obviously agrees: Watch when Carter talks about Habitat at a small dinner. At the end of the sequence, no one has even touched their food.
The DVD includes numerous additional interviews, a commentary track, and a featurette on the film's music. Recommended.