The Jimmy Carter in Jonathan Demme’s upcoming documentary, “Man from Plains,” is reserved and rarely regretful, especially as he criss-crosses the country for the tour of his most controversial book, “Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid.”
Not until Carter nears the end of the tour, speaking to a group of students at Brandeis University, and after he’s been called “a bigot, an anti-semite, a coward and a plagarist,” does he offer a hint of reflection.
“I’ve been hurt,” Carter says, carefully, “and so has my family, by some of the reaction.”
Far from offering the restorative power than Al Gore enjoyed with “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Man from Plains,” which debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, is a far more complex picture of its subject. It is clear that Demme lionizes him, with reminders that Carter’s efforts in ending the Iranian hostage crisis and in allieviating the energy crisis were prescient rather than the stuff of ridicule. On his book tour, Carter is a misunderstood figure, battling against incendiary groups and an often vapid media.
But as much as Carter is lauded, this is not a movie about his record of good deeds.
That’s because his Nobel-worthy accomplishments are overshadowed by the furor that was inspired by his book, and in particular the one word in its title, “apartheid.” And on this issue, the ex-president’s moral authority is far from clear cut. Carter used the provocative word to describe the walled in areas of Gaza and the West Bank, which he says choke off Palestinians from their livelihood, a characterization that his critics interpret as no less than anti-Israel.
Carter was blasted not only by groups like the Anti-Defamation League and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, but from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and even Rep. John Conyers. At one point, after he is intially turned down for a free speaking engagement at Brandeis, he tells his Simon & Shuster publicist Elizabeth Hayes, that he will give a lecture “at any college that wants me.”
The former president, in defending the book and the title, said that his intention was to spur debate on an issue that otherwise never gets discussed. For lawmakers, it’s just too sensitive, too politically risky, to do anything other than give support to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, among other groups, Carter says.
“If a candidate won’t pledge to do so,” he says, “their opponent will get their support.”
In his eyes the 40-foot-high wall has only worsened the situation because it has isolated the Palestinians, and in Gaza they are “imprisoned.”
He tells a crew from Israeli TV that the wall “is not designed to prevent attacks on Israelis; lately it’s designed to take land.”
He’s direct about what it will take for peace in the region. “The only way Israel is ever going to have peace, and to be recognized by its neighbors, is to withdraw from the occupied territories,” he says in one interview.
As much as he defends his choice of words — noting repeatedly that it refers to Palestine and its territories and not to Israel — his arguments often fall on deaf ears. That’s where this movie can be particularly engaging, where the message gets muddled with the messenger. In one scene, before an audience at the Carter Center, he points out one of the center’s board members,the Atlanta’s consulate general from Israel.
The consulate says later that Carter misses the point that the fence has actually curbed suicide bombings after a relentless series of suicide bombings. “We are very sorry that he can’t see the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” he says.
Nor does Demme demonize Carter’s critics. Dershowitz gets the opportunity to explain his side. When one of Dershowitz’s aides points out an interview where Carter has referred to the Holocaust as “the so-called Holocaust,” Dershowitz is ready to grab the ammunition. But then he sees web video of the interview, he sees its context, and gives Carter a break as using a poor choice of words.
As much as he is guarded, Carter’s frustrations do slip through. He’s doing a phone interview with some radio hosts that only gets worse with each question. Carter chides them for not reading the book. He hangs up and says to Hayes, “Those two were absolutely obnoxious.”
He lets loose on President Bush, noting that his National Security Adviser, Steven Hadley, barred him from visiting President Assad of Syria. “I’ve known this president (Assad) since he was a college student,” Carter says.
“Man from Plains” is too long and a bit plodding, but it is different from other recent documentaries of political figures. It errs on the side of verite, rather than point of view. He’s at his modest home, still eating a modest dinner with wife Rosalynn (and paper napkins), still teaching Sunday school, still flying commercial, and shaking hands with everyone down the aisle. It’s a picture of a man you may not agree with, but he is humble and tolerant.
Appearing on “The Tonight Show,” Jay Leno even asks him, hasn’t some group offered to send him a private jet?
Carter quips, “Not since this book came out.”
Above WireImage photo: Jonathan Demme and Jimmy Carter at the premiere of “Man from Plains” at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday.