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Demme takes intimate look at ‘Jimmy Carter’

Director asked for and received constant, intimate access to the 39th U.S. president, and ensured his subject that he intended to make a “warts-and-all” film about him.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sure, the exceedingly respectful “Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains” does play like an infomercial, with director Jonathan Demme following the former president around as he promotes his latest book.

That the book — “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” — generated some controversy when it came out last year in no way means that the documentary itself will ever become controversial.

Demme asked for and received constant, intimate access to the 39th U.S. president, and ensured his subject that he intended to make a “warts-and-all” film about him. Turns out, Carter is a thoughtful, decent man who’s kind, warm and engaging with everyone he meets, whether he’s at a book signing, church barbecue or lunch with the honchos from Simon & Schuster.

In one instance, Carter grows vaguely testy during a phone interview when it becomes clear that the person questioning him on the other end of the line hasn’t read his book. Then he seems slightly sheepish about having grown testy. It’s like Ned Flanders admitting that he’s guilty of having excessive pride in the community when it comes time to make a confession at church to Rev. Lovejoy.

Nevertheless, “Man From Plains” does reflect the complexities within Carter’s personality. We often see him speaking passionately about bringing peace to the Middle East, and about the argument he makes in his book that the Israeli occupation of parts of the West Bank and Gaza is tantamount to the racial segregation that occurred in South Africa. Carter spars eloquently in that Georgia drawl of his with Charlie Rose and Larry King, but then he shows self-deprecating humor when he appears on Jay Leno’s show.

He sweetly details how he and his wife of 60 years, Rosalynn, still read aloud to each other from the Bible every night before bed, even if they’re in different cities and have to do it over the phone. (And sometimes when they’re feeling frisky, they’ll even read the Spanish translation!) But then he also has a little harmless fun flirting with the makeup artist for Tavis Smiley’s show, a woman who calls him “honey” and “sweetheart” and gives him a farewell kiss on the cheek. Pretty permissive of those Secret Service agents.

But they do keep him safely on the periphery of the furor that surrounded him for the views he expressed in his book. A group of rabbis staged a protest outside a Phoenix bookstore where Carter was doing a signing one night; he zoomed away from it in his motorcade, but Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn zeroed in on the outrage from both Jews and Palestinians.

Similarly, Alan Dershowitz wanted to set up a debate when Carter spoke at Brandeis University; the 83-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner declined, but Demme achieves a bit of balance by giving Dershowitz sufficient time on camera to make his points. More often, though, we see Palestinians parading by Carter as he signs their books, nervously thanking him for all his diplomatic work.

Despite the impetus for the film, “Man From Plains” seems more interested in the man than in the politician. Demme devotes a bit of time to discussion of the key events that occurred during Carter’s time in the White House — the Iranian hostage crisis, peace between Israel and Egypt — but he shows us two instances of the former president unexpectedly, unabashedly choking up. In one case, he’s moved to tears while speaking before an audience at the Carter Center about that year’s enthusiastic new crop of interns. And when critics of the book accuse him of being a bigot and an anti-Semite, he is visibly stung.

But maybe that was smart — there’s something refreshing about the humanity and guilelessness of these reactions.

Similar to the approach he took with his concert documentaries, “Stop Making Sense” and “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” (both excellent), Demme makes us feel as if we are a fly on the wall. We ride alongside Carter in the back of an SUV, we join him in the hotel pool for early morning swims. He doesn’t insert himself, there’s no structured interview format, we never see him or even hear his voice.

He simply, easily immerses us. It’s the opposite of “Fahrenheit 9/11.” And that’s refreshing, too.