The Reeler


October 24, 2007

Jimmy Carter Man From Plains

Demme succumbs to the pie-eyed Carter myth in his disappointing documentary

Ultimately a pie-eyed bit of hagiography, Jimmy Carter Man From Plains -- writer/director Jonathan Demme’s up-close-and-personal document of the thirty-ninth President of the United States during his recent Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid book tour -- is also, for most of its runtime, an engrossing piece of work.

As a feature-length experiment in point-of-view, Man From Plains ranks alongside Demme’s paranoia-tinged remake of The Manchurian Candidate, which brilliantly envisages our geopolitical landscape as a miasma of distracting and destructive aural/visual stimuli. Candidate is all about declaring oneself against the dissenting voices within and without, its transcendent moment coming when disgraced soldier Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) and Vice Presidential candidate Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), both hypnotized to do the bidding of the villainous Manchurian Global corporation, vanquish their programming during an Election Day victory party. When Marco aims a rifle at the onstage politicians, he makes eye contact with Shaw through the gun sight and both men are instantly freed from their trance states. Foresaking realism for something more metaphysical, Demme transforms Marco and Shaw (to paraphrase both Ellison and Evangelion) into the beasts who shouted “I!” at the heart of the world.

It’s hard to imagine the Jimmy Carter of Man From Plains mustering such a defiant level of protest against anything, which is not to say that this soft-spoken humanist is content to let his opponents lay him to tarp with rant and rhetoric. As Demme’s fly-on-the-wall aesthetic reveals, Carter’s public persona is a carefully cultivated mix of down-home wisdom and directness (his refined well of knowledge is his roundhouse punch, his lightly corrective tone his knockout). Even in absentia Carter slays his adversaries, such as when Harvard University professor Alan Dershowitz, in one of several sideline interviews filmed in tandem with the Apartheid book tour, nearly takes Carter to task for an inopportune choice of words (the “so-called” Holocaust) made during a YouTube-embedded press conference, only to then make his own on-camera faux pas by implicitly likening all Palestinians to cockroaches (he quickly rectifies that only members of Hamas should be so classified).

Despite Demme’s statement in the press notes to present his subject “warts and all,” Carter never comes off as less than Superman. Whether swimming early morning laps in a palatial hotel pool or raising a house frame (hammer and tool belt in prominent view) in Katrina-devastated New Orleans, Carter’s saintly aura never fades for a second. This might be more defensible if the film were a fiction, especially when Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn (shooting on various high-def sources) so masterfully depict the media-saturated headspace that envelops their leading man. In an early sequence, Demme captures Carter’s guest turn on Charlie Rose entirely through canted angles of the two men on control room monitors, while Carter’s later appearance on Larry King Live is observed on the television of a Manhattan restaurant (with plenty of ready-to-comment patrons at hand) that specializes in Middle Eastern cuisine. In purely technical terms, Man From Plains can lay claim to being one of the best-looking documentaries of recent years.

What initially fascinates about Man From Plains are the themes that emerge from the varied modes of interplay between subject (Carter) and audience (the world at large). Demme understands the multifaceted ways in which image is generated and received, and it's no mistake that he opens the film with a 1979 Tonight Show clip in which Carter’s mother Lillian lightly chastises the Johnny Carson (and by implication his viewers) for poking fun at her son. It speaks to Demme’s recognition of the intertwining nature (for better and for worse) of politics and media, but also to his heartfelt desire to show Carter in a new, more human light, stripping away the simplistic iconography so that a more complex portrait might emerge.

Yet despite Demme’s unrestricted access to his subject, Carter remains frustratingly at arm’s length, mainly because the director seems to succumb to the myth that Carter is, at heart, just a boy from Georgia (the end credits trumpet: “Jimmy Carter… still lives in Plains, Georgia, population 637”). Such dimwitted “child is father to the man” tripe, which unfortunately contributes to the overall sense of Man From Plains as left-leaning propaganda, obscures the ineffable heart of the matter: that the Nobel Prize-winning Carter (who, for all his willingness to engage with the world, is nonetheless consistently at the beck and call of handlers and surrounded by protective buffers) is arguably a better person than a politician, more admirable in intent than in action. His life and work deserve a fuller accounting and analysis than Demme is finally able to provide.

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