It's easy to underestimate the careful construction behind Jonathan Demme's peerless portrait of Jimmy Carter, as the former president occupies the frame so totally and unself-consciously.

It’s easy to underestimate the careful construction behind Jonathan Demme’s peerless portrait of Jimmy Carter, as the former president occupies the frame so totally and unself-consciously. Starting and ending in his Georgia hometown, “Man From Plains” follows Carter’s tour for the most controversial of his 21 books, 2006′s “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Thanked and vilified from coast to coast, Carter remains steadfast in his belief that Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories are unjust and counterproductive. As complex as its subject, Sony Classics docu may ride the Middle East conflict into theaters, but the 39th president will keep it there.

Carter’s profound religiosity, which seemed intrusive and hokey at the time, now appears a template of tolerance. Seen hammering nails into a house under construction by Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans, and, using Demme’s docu to complain to a larger audience about the shameful conditions that persist there, Carter gives new credence to his long-held belief in the solvability of poverty and homelessness.

To many, the Cassandra-like Carter makes more sense in hindsight than when he lived in the White House. In a televised clip from the ’70s, Carter speaks about the necessity of developing alternate fuels to avoid being oil-dependent — logic that seems totally self-evident today.

But his search for world peace — and, highest on his list, peace for Israel — has so far escaped such retrospective clarity. Carter admits he deliberately chose the word “apartheid” for the title of his book to spark discussion, although he also contends the situation in Gaza and the West Bank does indeed conform to the definition of that word.

But, the term set off a firestorm of protest among Jewish leaders and Israel supporters. While Carter has often been attacked, he had never before been branded as a liar, bigot and anti-Semite, and “it hurts,” as he admits to a receptive audience at Brandeis U.

The transparency Carter displayed as president, his inability and/or unwillingness to hide the truth as he saw it, may well have led the nation to elect a consummate, feel-good actor to replace him. Or so the theory goes. But Carter’s candor also ensures that little or none of what Demme records exists solely for the camera.

Docu verifies this lack of distinction between Carter’s private and public personae. That includes Carter shaking everyone’s hands on every commercial flight he takes. At the same time, whether he’s hanging out with media lefties like Al Franken or tame talkshow hosts like Jay Leno, he is basically alone on the other side of the mic.

Demme taps Rosalynn Carter to describe the long, up-and-down progress of the still-standing Camp David peace accord of 1976 between Israel and Egypt from her own point of view, though she was not in the same room and sometimes not even the same compound as President Carter, Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Al Sadat. The story that emerges, illustrated with footage from the time, delivers a surprising lesson in the importance of small details and the ultimate power of negotiation.

At rest, Carter appears stooped and fragile, every minute of his 82 years. But once in motion, once involved, he seems reborn. Indeed, when Demme twice shows him swimming, one still sees the indomitable will and total engagement driving the frail body. Taking care of his farm, teaching Sunday school, riding his bike with his wife around Plains and overseeing elections in far-flung parts of the globe are, amazingly, all in a day’s work.

Tech credits are excellent.

Man From Plains

Production

A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Participant Prods. presentation of a Clinica Estetico production. Produced by Jonathan Demme, Neda Armian. Executive producers, Ron Bozman, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann. Directed by Jonathan Demme.

Crew

Camera (color, DCP), Declan Quinn; editor, Kate Amend; music, Djamel Ben Yelles, Alejandro Escovedo; sound, Roger Phenix. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 7, 2007. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) Running time: 126 MIN.

With

Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn Carter.

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