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Jimmy Carter Man from Plains

George Tiller

The question arises: if Carter can’t criticize Israel, then who can? Apparently the answer is no one.

Jimmy Carter Man from Plains

Director: Jonathan Demme
Cast: Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn Carter
Distributor: Sony
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
First date: 2007
US DVD Release Date: 2008-03-25

In 2006, Jimmy Carter wrote a book titled Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. The main argument of the book is that Israel’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank are the main obstacle to any peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He goes further by likening Israel’s control of Gaza and the West Bank to the South African creation and administration of “Bantustan’s” during its apartheid era. As Man from Plains shows, saying what’s absolutely obvious to the rest of the world doesn’t sit too well in America.

Man from Plains is the story of Carter's book tour and his efforts to bring some even-handedness to Americans' perception of the Middle East. As the documentary shows quite clearly, he didn’t stand a chance. Indeed, given the barrage of hostility that he encountered and the craven cowardice of both the media and the political establishment, one wonders that he bothered to try.

Showing that Carter, being who he was, had no choice but to speak out is where Man from Plains succeeds most brilliantly. The Carter family has owned the same land for 170 years and Carter knows the love of land as few do. After all, how many nuclear engineers in the US Navy -- not least former US presidents -- return to the family farm? The answer is pretty damn few.

Another aspect of Carter's character is his ability to love the other. He can see someone who is different than he is and treat that person with a rare empathy and understanding. The best extra feature on the DVD ("Boyhood Home --Thoughts on Segregation") is when Carter talks about America’s own apartheid (segregation) and how diminished he felt by it. Both of Carter’s parents worked long hours so Rachel Clark, an African American who worked for the Carters, raised Carter as much as his own family. “She had the aura of a queen.” Carter would recall.

There is a profound sadness in Carter's eyes as he speaks of the moment in which his playmates "became" African American and he "became" white. He doesn’t mince words or make excuses and his regret is palpable. “There were no civil rights activists. There were no enlightened lawyers who condemned the Supreme Court ruling of separate but equal. There were no church leaders who spoke out…segregation was the law of America.”

The final ingredient to his character is the tendency of the Carters to speak their minds. Man From Plains begins with Lillian Carter doing just that on the Tonight Show. Jimmy Carter, of course, always spoke his mind, as did his wife Rosalyn. In fact few Presidents ever got in as much trouble for honestly speaking their minds than Carter. The most famous instances of this are his legendary Playboy interview in 1976 ("I've committed adultery in my heart many times.") and his “National Malaise” speech in 1979 (Carter declared that the nation had reached a “crisis of confidence.” It was widely criticized as being a “huge depressant” at a time when America needed encouragement and a pep talk.)

Man From Plains does a rather poor job of explaining the significance of the 1979 Camp David Peace Accords. This was the treaty in which Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in exchange for peace and recognition from Egypt. It was the beginning of the Arab/Israeli peace process and its Carters greatest foreign policy achievement. Though there’s no love lost between the Israelis and the Egyptians, both nations have kept the peace.

The significance of this treaty is that no other combination of Israel’s enemies could (or can) threaten the existence of Israel. An outnumbered and beleaguered nation suddenly had a previously unimagined security and freedom of action. Without the Camp David Accords, how many more Arab/Israeli wars would have been fought? No President has done more for the security of Israel than Carter.

Given his track record, one may think that Carter should be able to speak his mind about Israeli practices in Palestine and get a respectful hearing. To their credit the Israeli press and the students at Brandeis do listen. So does Al Jazera, at least until Carter points out the evil and folly of terrorism. The Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans that appear in the documentary are grateful to have anyone speak for them.

Man From Plains shows vividly that the American media has many faults and that courage certainly isn’t one of them. To a person, representatives of the media spend more time worrying about the controversy generated by the book's title than whether Carter is right or not. Only the Israelis ask what should be done. Carter suggests implementing the Geneva Accords, an unofficial treaty drawn up by Israelis and Palestinians in an attempt to break the current deadlock.

Carter’s purpose in writing the book was to start a debate, but instead it initiated a lockdown. The thesis of his book isn’t even discussed In this documentary, instead there’s a barrage of quibbles about minutiae and attacks on Carter’s honesty. The Anti-Defamation League starts twisting arms and generating denouncements of Carter that are prominently displayed in full-page newspaper ads.

It’s disheartening to see Nancy Pelosi distancing herself from Carter quicker and farther than a Qassam rocket. It’s heartbreaking that what one doesn’t see is a single prominent American rising to Carter’s defense. Not one. Either Carter is absolutely and unjustifiably wrong (which I doubt), or there is something terribly wrong with our national discourse. The question arises, If Carter can’t criticize Israel, then who can? Apparently the answer is no one. This state of affairs bodes ill for Americans, Israelis and Palestinians alike.

A happy discovery that I while researching for this review is the vibrant and free flowing discussion of the very issues that Carter raises in the Israeli press. The Israelis’ lives are on the line; unlike the American media they can’t be dishonest or complacent. I very much recommend reading the Haaretz website to anyone who’s interested in the Israeli/Palestinian issue. (You can jump left or right from there.) What’s even more heartening is reading about Palestinians and Israeli’s working together to fight for Palestinian rights in Israeli courts.

The extra features on the DVD include extra scenes, a director commentary that’s voiced over the documentary, and a short about the studio sessions for the soundtrack. The extra scenes are all worth watching, especially "Boyhood Home" Thoughts on Segregation". Director commentaries really should be outlawed and this one is no exception. Instead of a straightforward interview the filmmakers spend an hour and a half commenting on the show you just watched! We’ve advanced from album filler to DVD filler.

Although not to my taste, the sound track to Man From Plains is quite good if a bit stereotypical. Urban scenes have rap music and the other scenes have folk music. The "Studio Sessions" short feature is extremely well made and would be a delight to anyone who enjoys folk music. If you don’t enjoy smug, lefty folk music, however, then avoid this short like the plague.


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