Aside from the fact that it makes you feel like human scum, Jimmy Carter: The Man from Plains is an inspiring film. "How does a man of 83 have such energy," you think, feeling appendicitis-like stabs of remorse over time wasted in dissipation and Halo sessions. Director Jonathan Demme is granted access that probably no president, current or ex-, has ever given a filmmaker. Looking over Carter's shoulder, he scurries to keep up with the peppery ex-prez during a multicity book-flogging tour last winter.
For the most part, Carter meets a love fest. Demme's film seems to wonder at a man who can accept all of this praise and thanks without feeling unworthy of it. (After you see this movie, you'll know why the Lone Ranger always rode off before someone could thank them.) Fortunately for the film's dynamic, there's also plenty of scorn in store. It's worst at a large protest rally in Phoenix, where a combination of evangelicals, Jews for Jesus and Israeli pressure groups wait for him.
They, like many commentators, can't get past the title of Carter's bestseller Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. He is forced to explain repeatedly that the apartheid in question is not in Israel, "a country universally admired," he says, which is laying it on thick. Rather, he refers to the discrimination in the occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza.
In breaking with his party's policy of going along quietly with the wall-builders, Carter is condemned by Nancy Pelosi, John Conyers and Bill Clinton. Some members of the Carter Center resign—14 out of 224. As The Nation's Alexander Cockburn noted, "The headlines could be saying, 'More than 90 Percent of Carter Board Members Support Former President.'"
With great patience, Carter suffers himself to be made up for the TV cameras. He meets his opponents, though declining a debate with Alan "the Torture Never Stops" Dershowitz at Brandeis, prompting Dershowitz to accuse Carter of "hard left anti-Israeli zealotry." When an al Jazeerah interviewer tries to sweeten Carter, the ex-president also comes down with asperity against terror bombers.
For recreation during the tour, the ultraspry Nobel laureate wields a hammer in New Orleans for Habitat for Humanity. At night, he keeps up midnight Bible-reading sessions via telephone to his wife back in the small Georgia town of Plains.
In flashbacks, we see Carter's biggest accomplishment, engineering the Camp David accords. (At the time, Menachem Begin jested that Carter worked harder on that than the Jews worked on the pyramids.) The then-president closed the deal, we're assured, by passing around photos of his grandchildren to Begin and Sadat.
Live long enough and you'll see political figures make an entire circuit from demonization to canonization. When first elected, Carter seemed like the Spirit of the Bicentennial. On Saturday Night Live, Carter was impersonated by Dan Aykroyd as a man who could fix anything from a nuclear power plant to a bad LSD trip. His work-shirts and Levis, his love of the Allman Brothers, his winning admission that he "lusted after women in his heart" in Playboy magazine, made him an alternative to the venom and skullduggery of the Nixon years.
Carter's diagnosis of national "malaise"—and the blasphemy of asking Americans to reduce their energy consumption (indeed!)—led to the palmier days of restored innocence and unslaked greed in the 1980s. Forget Carter's failure to smite Tehran with great vengeance. During his Phoenix stop, for instance, Demme shows Carter being thanked profusely by retired Air Force colonel Thomas Schaefer, a former hostage of the Iranians. Carter reiterates that nuking Tehran (as our blood-thirstier commentators wanted, then as now) would have ended up with the hostages dead.
Unfortunately, Demme is so rapt by his subject's energy, charm and humility that he doesn't follow the money. The words "Paul Volcker," "cold-bath recession" or "double-digit prime rate" do not figure in this movie. A director as left-wing as Demme could have got in a word about how the labor movement met some cruel defeats under the Carter regime.
The film illustrates Carter's toughness. "This is the first time I've been called a liar, a bigot and an anti-Semite," he says. Demme captures the way Carter gets a bruising for saying what only the Israeli—not the American—media are permitted to say. And in the end, Jimmy Carter just looks like the stronger man for taking it.
'Jimmy Carter: The Man from Plains' opens Friday, Nov. 2, at Rialto Cinemas Lakeside, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.
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