Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Premise: A documentary film following former president Jimmy Carter on a speaking tour to promote his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.
What Works: Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains is just what the title implies; the film looks at Carter’s life as it exists now, decades after his presidency. The picture is structured in layers as a character study to give a sense for who Carter is and how this elder statesman views his place in the world. The first and deepest layer is Carter’s family life, and he relays charming anecdotes of formative moments from his childhood while the film displays Carter connecting with his contemporary family. Next, the film delves into Carter’s work for Habitat for Humanity, showing the former president swinging a hammer and building houses, and this middle level gives a sense of Carter’s relationship to his community. Lastly, the picture takes the audience into the ins and outs of Carter’s book tour for Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid and the storm of criticism that the book elicited. Here Carter tries to act as mediator for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is caught in the crosshairs of talking head television and talk radio. Through his discussions with the media and the family and community involvement, the film gives a sense of Carter’s personality but also his political philosophy, which is one concerned foremost with social justice. That said, the film also includes Carter’s detractors both of his book and of his presidency and it comes across as a mostly balanced view.
What Doesn’t: Those looking for a retrospective on the legacy of Carter’s presidency, good or bad, won’t find it here. Also, although the film portrays a lot of the controversy around Carter’s book, it does not come to much of a conclusion about that controversy and the film might be best viewed as a companion to the book.
DVD extras: Commentary track, extra scenes, soundtrack recording sessions.
Bottom Line: Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains is a terrific documentary, focusing on the afterlife of a president. Carter’s story is unique in that his life has been more controversial and perhaps more effective since he left office and the film dissects his life, his legacy, and his political philosophy to reveal the man underneath.
Episode: #202 (August 31, 2008)