Last year was one of Jimmy Carter's craziest. He wrote a book about the Israeli-Palestinian tumult, more or less, in sympathy with the Palestinians and at the perceived expense of the Israelis, who, among others, took umbrage with Carter's knowingly provocative description of the situation as "apartheid." The typical disbelieving response to his use of that word was something like, "Oh no he didn't." He spent the rest of 2006 explaining why he did.
Jonathan Demme was on hand with a camera to watch Carter parry attacks and articulate the stance in his book, titled "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." The result is "Jimmy Carter Man From Plains," a documentary that falls somewhere between overlong and compelling as it follows the 39th president on his controversial book tour. The movie views Carter two ways: through the prism of the international media during this firestorm and through the eyes of an admirer allowed to watch Carter do things like bless his food at home, in Georgia, with his wife, Rosalynn.
For obvious reasons, the media blitz is the more interesting section of the film. Carter is whisked from city to city and interview to interview - "Good Morning America," "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer," "Fresh Air," Diane Rehm's radio program, "The Tavis Smiley Show," where a wonderful encounter with the house makeup artist awaits. We get an uncomfortably testy chat with Charlie Rose, pointed sit-downs with the Emory Eagle and Israeli TV, a much anticipated Q & A with the kids at Brandeis University, and some levity with Jay Leno, who, like everyone else, wants to know: "Why 'apartheid'?"
Before the book tour, Demme somehow casts Carter as a simple, if privileged man from rural Georgia (the Plains of the title) who goes to cookouts and reads a bilingual Bible, not as a post-presidential human rights activist. That strategy makes Carter's months in the media's maw jarring and fraught. Is he too frail to withstand the barrage of inquisition, the accusations of plagiarism and anti-Semitism, and the public departure of a senior member from the Carter Center? The answer is no.
"Man From Plains" is similar to "The Agronomist," Demme's fine documentary about the slain Haitian activist Jean Dominique. They're both intimate portraits of wanted men. With Carter, what you come to appreciate under his circumstances is what a gentleman he can be. During one phone interview with a radio station, he politely, but sharply insists that his on-air interrogators have not read his book. When he hangs up, he tells the tireless publishing rep who is his sidekick for the tour that he found them obnoxious.
Most of the film appears to have been done on the fly with a digital video camera. Some of the shot-making is muddy, but Demme is more interested in creating an impressionistic profile than crafting a work of aesthetic beauty. Throughout, he practices reverence without completely succumbing to hagiography - although exasperated supporters of Israel may beg to differ. Some of them, like Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who figures prominently as a vociferous critic of Carter, manage to come off reasonably OK. Demme is, in fact, fair. But maybe we don't need to see Carter walking up the aisle of a plane shaking the hand of every passenger.
Demme also leaves Carter to let people at his book signings speak into the camera and to show us angry protests between Jews and Arabs in Phoenix. And in order to underscore, at least tacitly, Carter's inflammatory appropriation of "apartheid," he provides footage of bombings in Jerusalem and of average Palestinians climbing between concrete barriers that wall them off from Israel.
But the movie's best material is archival. The film has an extensive passage featuring the Camp David peace accords Carter brokered in 1978, between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. It looks like old home movie stuff, but you can still feel its monumentality. The Israeli leader's warm embrace first of the commander in chief, then of his Egyptian enemy is touching until it's just heartbreaking, since Carter as provocateur doesn't seem close to pulling off a similar miracle today.