Knee-jerk conservatives will doubtlessly avoid Jonathan Demme’s documentary on Jimmy Carter, assuming it will be simple hagiography, but they ought to give it a chance. Knee-jerk liberals, on the other hand, may go to it expecting it to be simply laudatory biography, but they’re likely to be surprised by it, too. “Man from Plains” isn’t a wholesale life story at all; instead it focuses on the ex-president’s tour for his latest book, showing him to be both principled and prickly as he confronts the reaction to his argument that Israeli policy toward its Palestinian citizenry amounts to something comparable to apartheid. Demme’s attitude toward the man is basically complimentary, but being a good documentary filmmaker he doesn’t ignore the occasional wart. And, of course, in showcasing the deliberately provocative argument of Carter’s book at all, his film raises the same troubling questions about Israeli policy—and American support for it—that this remarkable man has done.
What sets “Man from Plains” apart is the degree of access Carter gave to the director, so that we see him in both public forums like meetings at the Carter Center and book signings, and at home in Plains with Rosalyn and his neighbors, in church and at a local barbecue. The camera catches him trudging through airports carrying his own luggage (and going through the plane offering to shake hands with all the other passengers, most enthusiastically accepting but a few ostentatiously turning away), helping with Habitat for Humanity projects, calling home while being driven to a television interview, or doing a radio phoner at the end of which he dismisses the guys at the other end of the line as obnoxious. And we watch as Carter is not only approached by admirers but confronted by protestors furious with his book.
The result is a sympathetic but rounded portrait in which we see the ex-president as aloof and distant on the one hand and friendly and approachable on the other, and driven by a devotion to truth, a sense of certitude and deep faith and humility, but also a sometimes pompous self-righteousness. And driven is the word: Carter may be an octogenarian and his body a frail instrument, but he demonstrates a degree of energy that would put most younger men to shame. “Man from Plains” is a film that’s both inspiring and revealing about a man praised by some and unconscionably reviled by others.