Watching Jonathan Demme's hagiographic documentary Jimmy Carter Man From Plains, I kept thinking of Hendrick Hertzberg's essay on Carter in his book, Politics; Hertzberg, who worked for Carter as a White House speechwriter, found his admiration and affection for the man mixed with frustration at Carter's determined righteousness and unwillingness to compromise, all seen through a clear-eyed appraisal of the political faults and benefits of this kind of approach. All of that-- the idealism, the self-righteousness, the desire for something richer and more flexible-- is on display in Demme's film, which not only follows Carter on a controversial book tour, but ends up embodying some of these qualties itself.
First of all, the title is something of a misnomer-- it's less a portrait of Carter than a screen capture of a certain moment in time, when Carter wrote Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid and defended it against vociferous attack during a months-long book tour. Those going in expecting a wider-ranging look at Carter's life and accomplishments, or any real placement of the issues Carter discusses in a broader historical context, will probably be disappointed. There's something to be said for this approach: in its use of shaky hand-held cameras, its frequent use of revealing close-ups, and its lack of an omniscent narrator or on-screen questioner, it often feels like a modern update of Robert Drew's early sixties' documentaries on Kennedy; you certainly get the sense of being there. The question is, is that an interesting place to be? When John Lennon was asked what the Beatles' most recent tour was like, he replied, "So far I've been in a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room,'' a line so evocative that screenwriter Alan Owun borrowed it for their film debut, A Hard Day's Night. Man From Plains feels like that sometimes-- ex-President-as-rock-star-out-on-tour, and experiencing all the banalities and repetitions that such a 'glamourous' life entails (perhaps that structure also comes from Demme, whose most notable past docs-- Stop Making Sense, Storefront Hitchcock, Heart of Gold--were all about rock musicians). It does place the viewer in Carter's shoes, a process also made easier by his wrinkled and wonderfully expressive face, and the way his gentle cadences draw the viewer into his world no matter how brutal the topic. After awhile, though, the space feels cramped.
And cramped space, is, in the end, Carter's project with his book. The discussions that ensue in the film are provocative, but I do wish the film was a bit less partitioned in its style and goals (we get only fleeting glimpses of Carter's home life, the vibrant sense of community around him in Plains, and his habitat work, and I would've liked to have seen more of his eulogy for President Ford-- indeed, any other ex-Presidents or White House figures, in order to give context). At this point, Demme's career itself seems bifurcated between sleek commercial features like The Truth About Charlie and The Manchurian Candidate and almost ascetic political work on movies like The Agronomist. As a big fan of Demme's pre-Silence of The Lambs work, I'd love to see him return to that earlier sensuality, and merge it with his current political urgencies. After all, who's to say political discourse can't be cinephiliac?