Our country for the first time in my lifetime has abandoned the basic principle of human rights. We’ve said that the Geneva Convention does not apply to those people in Abu Ghraib prison and Guantánamo, and we’ve said we can torture prisoners and deprive them of an accusation of a crime to which they are accused.
— Jimmy Carter, CNN’s Situation Room (10 October 2007)
The story of Jimmy Carter Man From Plains begins with Miss Lillian. She’s a guest on The Tonight Show in June 1979, smiling pleasantly and sweetly answering Johnny Carson’s questions about her son, the President of the United States. “He never criticizes me,” she reports, by way of illustrating her sense of freedom around her son “He likes everything I do.” Johnny nods: “That’s good. People should be able to speak their minds.” The audience applauds and the clip — so charming and so nostalgic — fades out.
It’s a telling bit of archive, introducing not only Carter’s famous mutually devoted relationship with his mother but also the theme at the heart of Jonathan Demme’s documentary. In an era of spin and focus groups, people speaking their minds is an increasingly rare event. If the film celebrates Carter’s resilience and commitment to such speaking, it also traces the long and complicated process by which he came to be so committed. His mother had much to do with it, of course, but so did other influences as he came up in Plains, Georgia, population 635.
As Carter remembers it, his mother was absent during much of his childhood, being a nurse who worked 20 hours a day. And so he spent long hours with Rachel Clark, “a black woman on the farm” and the “one alongside me when I picked cotton and shook peanuts.” The memory seems quaint, almost corny or self-serving, and yet, as Carter speaks, it’s also somehow helpful, hinting at his sense of himself as much as the myth that has evolved about him. The documentary doesn’t probe or interrogate as much as it observes, closely.
Much like The Agronomist, Demme’s remarkable portrait of Haitian radio journalist Jean Dominique, the new film offers subtle, sometimes contradictory details, admiring its subject but not quite smitten. The complications beneath that seeming “plain” surface make this Jimmy Carter less an icon or even a former president than a man, determined and shrewd.
This man is filmed for the most part as he tours the U.S. in late 2006 and early 2007, supporting his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. This man is also pious, certainly, but not preachy. During a speech at a church, he indicates how he’s able to keep so many intellectual and philosophical balls in play. “You don’t have to believe things about Jesus,” he says, though he happens to believe in the virgin birth. You only need to believe “in Jesus,” a set of ideals and hopes, a faith that the world can become a better place and moreover, that you can contribute to that process.
He is still the former president, suffering fools, greeting “fans.” He’s not like Bill Clinton, he’s not a rock star. He is instead a politician and a diplomat, facing rejection and resentment as well as respect, absorbing all responses as part of an ongoing, crucial “conversation” — in this case, more often than not, conducted with high profile professional talkers, including Terri Gross, Wolf Blitzer, and Al Franken. Tavis Smiley suggests that like Belafonte and Cosby, Carter is now getting old and more aggressive, “speaking truth to power.” (Smiley’s PBS show, it should be noted, this year hosted Demme’s series of short documentaries, Right to Return: New Home Movies from the Lower Ninth Ward.) Carter obligingly jokes about Rosalynn’s dominance in the marriage with Leno (“I don’t tell her what to do, she tells me what to do”). He meets with the executive committee of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix, who object to his characterization of the wall and appear in the film with blurred faces, insisting, an intertitle notes, that their comments not be made public).
Throughout his journey, Carter takes a thousand questions about his “provocative” title, and patiently explains, again and again, what he understands the word to mean, and that supporting a Palestinian state is not the same thing as “hating the Jews.” The film emphasizes the repetition of a book tour — he travels by commercial jet, signs books and shakes hands (attended by Secret Service), rides in limo after limo, past monument after monument, a flow of similar images punctuated by shots of Carter in goggles, submerged in bright blue hotel pool water, swimming endless invigorating laps.
The film records his inevitable fatigue and uncanny energy, his enthusiasm and frustration. (“Those two fellows are absolutely obnoxious,” he tells his publicist after a radio phone-in interview. She calls after him from off-screen, “Sorry!”) This tour is a little different than tours before: his book generates outrage and furor, including specific denunciation by Alan Dershowitz (who takes the opportunity afforded by Demme’s film to mount his half of the debate Carter rejected in 2006).
While Dershowitz contends that Carter’s book is wrongheaded, “beating up on Israel” and neglecting history in favor of bias. By electing Hamas, says Dershowitz, “The Palestinians made their bed and now they have to sleep in it, and the bed is full of cockroaches.” He goes on to clarify: “the cockroaches “are not the Palestinian people, but the Hamas terrorists.” The film takes a side here, including a brief, pointed sequence that illustrates Carter’s claims concerning what’s happening in the occupied West Bank: Israeli forces bulldoze Palestinian homes and maintain armed checkpoints, as Palestinian family members step gingerly through breaks in the wall. The sequence includes as well the effects of suicide bombers, grief and horror visible in survivors’ bloodied faces.
Carter is reminded repeatedly of the Iran hostage crisis. When advised that he should have brought military power to the situation, and so, according to a certain logic, cut off the Islamic extremist that followed, Carter explains that he made a choice to negotiate instead, resulting in all hostages being released alive and no dead Iranians. When he meets briefly with a former hostage, who thanks him for that decision, the film doesn’t underline the point and neither does Carter. He smiles, shares a brief hug, and moves on.
But even as Carter presses forward, the film reminds you, in its closing credits, of the past, the 1978 Camp David accord, signed by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin (after Carter spent days shuttling between their cabins, as their first and only face-to-face discussion resulted in loud disagreement), the Carters’ walk down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day 1977, the former president’s Nobel Peace Prize, trip to Ghana, and meeting with Fidel Castro. Looking back, these conversations with designated “enemies” look almost strange. The film submits that such bridge building is not only significant history, but also, necessary for the future.