Late in 2006, President Jimmy Carter tours the U.S. promoting his provocative "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." Demme's camera follows Carter from city to city, home to Plains (population 635), visiting a Habitat for Humanity site in New Orleans, and talking on radio and TV with Teri Gross, Charlie Rose, Diane Rehm, Jay Leno, Larry King, Wolf Blitzer, Tavis Smiley, and Al Jazeera and Israeli pundits, discussing Palestine's plight and the policies of Israel. Critics speak as well. Between events, Carter talks about Camp David, recent travels, being married, speaking Spanish, and wisdom he learned from Rachel Clark, his nanny. A montage of speeches, awards, and travels ends the film. Written by
Demme Catches Carter in a Crossfire and Exposes a Man of Strength
Depending on your political proclivities, those expecting a full-blown biopic of the 39th President of the United States will be either severely disappointed that it focuses primarily on his 2006/7 book signing tour, or exhilarated that it is not a two-hour Biography Channel special of his life's highlights. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme ("Silence of the Lambs", "Philadelphia") is no stranger to the demands of the documentary format, although his previous efforts have been concert films, 1984's "Stop Making Sense" with the Talking Heads and 1998's "Storefront Hitchcock" with English singer Robyn Hitchcock. This time, he and cinematographer Declan Quinn followed Jimmy Carter, spry and fit for 83, on his extensive tour to promote his controversial 2006 bestseller, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" about the indignities faced by Palestinians living in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The book's deliberately provocative title was designed to spark discussion, and the thrust of the 2007 film is to show the media-intensified firestorm Carter faced as a result.
To his immense credit, Demme lets Carter speak for himself in the film and doesn't allow a narrator to provide color commentary on the former president's hectic touring schedule. What comes across is a man rightfully proud of the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, and has most recently taken to heart his sense of responsibility as a private citizen and former leader to share the devastation he has seen the Palestinians experience in the occupied areas cut off from the rest of the world. It's an arc that Demme explores through an effective use of archival footage, interviews with key figures (including Carter's wife of 62 years, Rosalynn, who speaks movingly about what led Menachem Begin to sign the final treaty), and the robust, even-keeled presence Carter maintains throughout despite what seems to be a dizzying pace and the consistent critical onslaught. Much of Carter's politic demeanor can be attributed to his faith, including nightly Bible readings with Rosalynn (no matter where he is), but Demme also shows the discipline Carter employs with his handlers and in his regular regimen of swimming laps.
It's definitely a favorable impression of the former president, which is unlikely to sit well with detractors who view him as a treasonous rabble-rouser, but the effect is understandable given that some of Carter's more vocal opponents refused to be filmed, including Dr. Kenneth Stein, who resigned as a Carter Center fellow (of whom Carter dismissed as an absentee member), and a roomful of protesting rabbi elders in Phoenix. Fortunately, renowned Harvard professor and attorney Alan Dershowitz is included as one of the most vocal opponents of Carter's book. His fair-minded comments provide a critical counterbalance to the positive image of Carter, and interestingly, it is never really explained why Carter would not face Dershowitz in a public debate at Brandeis University, who initially turned down Carter's proposal to lecture for free. Intriguingly, Demme takes a behind-the-scenes approach to the various media interviews, whether it's Terry Gross, Charlie Rose, Wolf Blitzer, or Tavis Smiley. In turn, Carter expertly modulates his points to fit the format, including an amusingly deadpan confession to Jay Leno on who really wears the pants in the Carter marriage.
Demme also incorporates the other key priorities in Carter's life to provide more dimension to the portrait - his dedicated work on Habitat for Humanity and as caretaker of the land his family has owned for nearly two centuries around Plains. The parts of the film that drag unnecessarily are more logistical in nature traveling repeatedly with his kowtowing Simon & Schuster publicist and preparing the customers for the book signings. At 125 minutes, the film runs a mite long and could have benefited from another editing session. Extras are plentiful on the 2008 DVD starting with over thirty minutes of additional scenes and a half-hour featurette on the making of the soundtrack. Neither feels essential though an extended sequence showing a signing at Costco brought out a perturbed woman who tersely told Carter he should be tried for treason. Demme and producer Neda Armian also contribute a very thoughtful commentary track. Trailers for ten other Sony Classics films on DVD complete the extras.
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