Jonathan Demme, who directed Tom Hanks to an Oscar as the AIDS-afflicted lawyer in Philadelphia, may be the most well-meaning filmmaker in Hollywood. Jimmy Carter is certainly the most well-meaning ex-president in recent American history. And so Demme's documentary, Jimmy Carter Man From Plains, has no shortage of good intentions. In fact, running over two hours, they're nearly suffocating.
It's basically an infomercial, following Carter during the course of a 2006 book tour to promote his best-selling critique of Israel's West Bank occupation, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The film provides perfunctory background on Carter's down-home Georgia roots, then plunges along with him into the media maelstrom. Carter stubbornly fences with Charlie Rose, gamely educates Larry King, and cheerfully signs a vast quantity of books. Grateful Palestinian Americans turn out in droves to thank him, and people still want to know about his handling of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.
A detour to some habitat-building in New Orleans aside, Jimmy Carter never strays far from the controversy at the heart of Carter's book. But neither does the movie delve into the situation. Carter's personality, not Palestine's predicament, is Demme's focus. A benign presence, Carter flies coach, mingling easily with his fellow passengers. At once soft and steely, reasonable and unyielding, he sits for interviews with both Israeli TV and Al Jazeera. At least as much time, however, is given to a scene in which Carter banters with the makeup artist who is applying his pre-TV pancake.
In the end, the 82-year-old former president is evidently weary. He resents that he's been called a liar, a bigot, an anti-Semite, and a plagiarist. He's just doing what he can. So too Demme, who tries to heighten the drama with strategic infusions of faux-Arab and faux-gospel mood music. But a book tour isn't a political campaign, and traveling with Jimmy Carter isn't exactly going backstage with the Rolling Stones. It's a measure of Demme's quiet desperation that he would cite, as one of the movie's "excitements," the opportunity to see NPR radio interviewer Terry Gross in the flesh.