Man From Plains (2007)

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Man from Plains
Dir. Jonathan Demme
Premiered at Venice September 7, 2007

Once upon a time, someone who had never been to the United States asked me to explain a joke she’d seen on The Simpsons, in which Jimmy Carter was sarcastically labeled “history’s greatest monster.” She didn’t get it. “Was Jimmy Carter really that horrible?” she asked, “or is the joke that he was really great?”

I understand her confusion; the Carter presidency is an aberration with few historical parallels. Much as people in right-wing media might wishfully characterize America’s 39th President as a monstrous lunatic, nobody can say it with conviction: the problem with Carter is that he was genuinely too good to be President, an unbending moralist unwilling to perform the sins required of effective leaders. As a President, he was a naïve fool and rightfully disliked for it; but as an ordinary man, he’s beloved, a living facet of America’s proud political heritage.

Most of the time.

In Jonathan Demme’s Man from Plains, Carter’s good intentions clash once more with the practicalities of leadership as he promotes his book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, the subject of immediate controversy by its very title. After joining the former Commander-in-Chief at an endearing Thanksgiving potlock in Plains, Georgia, Demme follows him on a grueling press tour all around the US to be interviewed by just about everyone who’d have him, including both Al-Jazeera and the Israeli Broadcast Authority.

Carter makes no secret of having chosen the book’s title as a deliberate provocation– in fact, he never shuts up about it– but when he’s accused of misrepresenting events he writes about, or plagiarizing maps from a book by former diplomat Dennis Ross, he avoids the issue. To be sure, not all of this is under Carter’s control; his debate with a group of Arizona rabbis was unable to be filmed for example. Yet Carter creates his own problems when, for example, he refuses to debate Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz over the content of the book. This last instance is perhaps the most bizarre, flying in the face of Carter’s own stated intentions to start a debate.

Knowing that Jimmy Carter is a genuinely good person who has built a lot of goodwill– at one point detouring to New Orleans so he can help rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina– I cannot hate the man. And I don’t believe he is an enemy of Israel or of peace, however offensively or overoptimistically he may frame the terms. But watching him self-victimize whenever he’s confronted is unsettling to say the least, and may provide an unintended insight into the failings of his presidency.

I worked hard not to judge this movie (or any movie) by its politics, or whatever I infer its politics may be. But the film as presented left me scratching my head. Jonathan Demme, a great documentarian, surely chose to make this film in an attempt to cash in on the controversy at its center, yet Man From Plains never really goes there. Like Carter, Demme evades, electing only to show critics in either the worst possible light or unmask them as secret admirers of the former President. He treats politics like he does the performers in his concert movies, and in so doing deprives the film in question of any reason to exist.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Carter appears on The Tonight Show the same night as Panic! At the Disco.

Among Carter’s many, many interviewers are three men who have since withdrawn from public life due to sexual harassment allegations within the last four months: Charlie Rose, Al Franken, and Tavis Smiley. What’s more, Smiley glowingly compares Carter to Bill Cosby as a man trying to make a difference in old age.

How Did It Do?
Man from Plains was gleefully received by critics, earning a 79% rating on RottenTomatoes. Said critics may also have been the only people to see it in theaters, as it grossed a miniscule $119,263.

Next Time: My Winnipeg

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