Jonathan Demme finds arguably his finest subject in the former president.
The prologue of Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains follows the 39th President of the United States as he whiles away his time in his small hometown of Plains, Georgia. Watching him interact with people gives an immediate insight into the curious humility of his life: Carter has the eerie calm of a man who has come to expect reverence even as he approaches people with disarming affability. Speaking before the congregation of his local church, he pauses to ask where the many weekly visitors are from and people respond with various far-flung states and nations, all having come from around the country and world to see this man. Carter knows this and welcomes each person individually, but then channels their pilgrimage to him toward a Unitarian-style sermon in which he expounds on the complexities of faith and how devotion alone does not prove moral worth as well as the role of science in bolstering, not eroding, belief. Scenes such as this, to say nothing of his more informal glad-handing around town, present a man whose broadly condemned tenure as president does not preclude his image as the living embodiment of the nation’s most idealized self-image of democracy.
Jonathan Demme finds arguably his finest subject in the former president, not only for Carter’s long-running humanitarian work, but also in the expressiveness of his facial and body gestures. The warm smile he wears on his face at nearly all times calls attention to the moments where that smile drops. In such moments, the trace of genuine rage and horror in Carter’s voice clashes violently with his beatified calm, which symbolizes well the film’s main subject: Carter’s tour for his new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, in which he condemns Israeli occupation of the West Bank and calls for a two-state solution. The tone for Carter’s tour is set early upon his arrival to New York, when Carter gets to his hotel room and takes a phone interview about his book as the camera watches his genial greeting fade into silence and concern. Carter responds to the unheard questions, defending his decision to use the word “apartheid” in his book. Demme captures the crestfallen look that passes over Carter’s face as he realizes that this is the first barrage in a coming storm, and that what he actually wrote will matter far less to most than the provocation of the title.
For the rest of the film, Demme tracks Carter as he wades through the explosion of condemnation that greets his publication. Media interviews show reporters not openly siding with Israel, but framing the debate in such a way as to accept Israeli actions as justifiable and Palestinian as terrorist, as when Wolf Blitzer immediately defends Israeli’s walls in the West Bank as defensive measures before walking it back when Carter points out that the wall is built not on a border but within the West Bank territory. Demme shoots Carter’s interviews like a fly on the wall, either through the monitor banks of show producers or just by the reporters and Carter, picking up on the way producers and editors feed questions and decide when they have the quotes they need. These scenes are not presented as insidious, but one nonetheless sees how the complexity of the debate is sanded down into a mere reaction, forcing Carter to account for himself rather than argue for his ideas.
The film fills in the spaces around Carter’s contentious tour with footage from his Presidency. Demme subtly suggests that the withering firestorms he received in office prepared him to keep his cool on this book tour, and Carter’s frustrations are mostly limited to his exasperated claims that most detractors have not even read his book to refute its points. Taking phone calls on a radio interview, Carter must contend with someone bringing up his handling of the Iranian hostage situation, something he does with mechanical reflexivity after decades of justifying himself. Carter clearly shows irritation throughout his press engagements, but he constantly keeps himself in check.
At times, though, he does snap, though even then in amusingly civil fashion. On one phone interview, he gets so heated having to repeat himself and dispel whatever the other person is saying that he seems like he might explode, only to cordially bid the interviewer farewell before hanging up and musing about such obnoxious fools. Elsewhere, Carter, who eagerly invites all challenges to his work, openly turns down a chance to debate Alan Dershowitz, hilariously saying it is not worth his time to speak to so transparently-biased a man.
Yet if Carter’s tumultuous, largely condemned term in office is seen as preparation for the rigors of this fresh firestorm, so too does his Presidency’s accomplishments form the backbone of his out-of-office ambitions. He draws a clear line between the Camp David Accords he brokered between Israel and Egypt and the question of peace between Israel and Palestine, and his earnest, naive personality is somewhat justified by the gentle guile of the negotiating tactics he brought to bear on those talks. Some of those tricks are detailed by Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, who tells a moving, revealing story about how her husband cajoled Israel’s then-prime minister, Menachem Begin, into restarting stalled talks by subtly invoking his grandchildren.
And for all the ugliness that surrounds the subject, Carter’s disarming personality does pay dividends when people actually listen to him. A recurring image of the film features US Palestinians coming up to him and thanking him for being brave enough to speak on the subject. The greater achievement comes at the end, when Carter gives a lecture at Brandeis University, a college with deep historical ties to the Jewish community, and has a productive dialogue with the students, who challenge his views but are also receptive to his arguments. Having endured the immediate rejection of so many, Carter leaves the event beaming even more than usual, raving about the intelligence and open-mindedness of the young people. It’s a moment of thin hope at the end of a movie that exposes deep rifts on a topic threatening to shape global politics for the foreseeable future, but one that nonetheless feels like a burst of air following the suffocation of media simplification and bad faith that surrounds the topic.