Screening Liberally: Rendering Jimmy Carter Voiceless

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

Rosalynn Carter looks us in the eye and tells us the following story:
it's the final grueling days of the Camp David peace talks, and things
are looking very, very bad. Her husband Jimmy, the President of the
United States, tells her privately that all hope is lost for a peace
agreement between Israel and Egypt. "We had to decide how to tell the
world that it failed."

I don't know about you, but I personally can not imagine what that
must feel like - the gravity and shame of knowing that in a few
moments you would have to tell the entire world to give up hope, that
as far as your efforts were concerned the Middle East conflict is
indeed intractable. That you, the President who'd only just recently
promised the world that peace was indeed still possible, would have to
admit that the cynics were right.  The incalculable weight of
that knowledge, even if for only an instant before the eventual
success of the Camp David Accords. What must it be like to be Jimmy
Carter at that moment?

This is the question Jonathan Demme repeatedly poses and then
repeatedly forgets in his bizarrely impotent new documentary on Jimmy
Carter and his href="">Palestine:
Peace Not Apartheid
book tour, href="">Man From
. Demme follows Carter through a chronicle of the
various media stops he makes to promote his controversial book, with
pit stops along the way to a Carter Center meeting, a Habitat for
Humanity building session in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, a lesson at
Sunday School - and yet, by the end of the film, we somehow feel as if
we know less about Carter than when we began.

Whatever the reason for that may be (and I have a few theories), it's
not because the principal subject was a bad choice - Jimmy Carter is
very fertile ground for a feature-length examination. One of the more
enigmatic Presidents in modern memory, we tend to closely associate
Carter with moral anguish, whether it be the Camp David talks and the
endless negotiation for Iranian hostages during his Presidency, or his
philanthropic work and strong advocacy in the years since. Here we

have a man who's had arguably the single biggest image rehabilitation
of any President outside of Truman, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, now
considered the best kind of elder statesman...which, of course, begs
the question - why potentially muck that all up with a book entitled
Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid? What kind of man makes that
decision? Surely, regardless of how one feels about the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is a question worth asking: what
kind of man is Jimmy Carter?

For a film with seemingly unlimited access to the former President,
it's stunning how surface-level its examination of this question
really is. We see endless interviews with Carter on various cable
outlets - perhaps a majority of the overall footage of the film
consists of interchangeable interview footage, all the same save for
the network asking the questions, all the questions being more or less
the same: "Why did you use the word 'apartheid' in the title?" "What
are you hoping to accomplish with this book?" Carter's answer doesn't
change much. Neither does our reaction.

To be perfectly honest, I can't get over just how downright bizarre a
choice this is, particularly for a filmmaker as consistently smart as
Demme. Again, by all appearances, he had nearly 24-hour access to
Carter - and yet, he somehow has chosen to make his film a chronicle
of Carter's unchanging answers to basic questions. (That being said,
if you just can't get enough of Carter's stock-reply for why he chose
the word 'apartheid' for his book title, and would prefer to see a
feature-length montage of such replies, Man From Plains is the
film for you!) It's almost cinema verite by accident - through his use
of meaningless visual flourishes like floating titles and
unintentionally (?) distracting musical cues, if nothing else, we can
intuit that's not what Demme is going for, although what he is
going for remains a burning question.

When we're not watching CNN/MSNBC/BBC, et. al interview footage (quick
note: if I were a film critic for the New York Post, I might now say
something like "I already pay enough for cable at home! C'mon!
Fuhgeddaboutit!"), we're witnessing scenes of mayhem in Jerusalem, the
Gaza Strip, Tel Aviv, etc, intercut at music video speed. These
sections are almost accidentally even-handed in the worst way - the
clips are so contextless that it's hard to imagine anyone advocating
for any side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict being able to claim
their point is being proven. Demme's choice here is that of a really
smart fifth-grader who hopes that if he seems sincere enough, the
teacher won't notice he never actually expressed an opinion.

Which is all the more frustrating when one sees just how fascinating
Demme's film becomes when it unleashes itself from the yolk of endless
cable interviews and contextless footage of violent acts in the Holy
Land. Take, for instance, the all-too-brief segment where Dershowitz
presents his case against Carter's book, and decries Carter's refusal
to debate him in a forum at Brandeis University. It's all pretty
damning, but the film, whose only previous reference to Dershowitz is
an offhand comment by Carter bemoaning the former's bias, not only
fails to provide Carter's response to such challenges, but seems to
forget that we might want to hear Carter's opinion - he's only,
y'know, the principal subject of the film. For all we know, Carter's
case against debating Dershowitz might be quite convincing, but Demme
seems to forget there's an audience actually engaging with his

We see plenty of people, given only the thinnest of background (he's
an Israeli consulate! she's a bartender!), providing their own snap
judgement of Carter and his book, both positive and negative, snap
judgements so quickly provided that it barely counts as new voice on
the debate. We see plenty of interviewers, from several nations, give
their own take on Carter. In fact, it feels like the only person we
don't really see talking about Carter is the person we most need to
hear: Carter himself. This is made only more infuriating when Demme
provides glimpses of Carter providing little bits of
nice-but-unnecessary autobiography. That Carter was mentored by a
friend of his mother is of much importance, it seems, to Demme;
anything that he has provoked his audience into caring about ranks as
a far-away 2nd.

If one wants to grasp the true tragedy of Man From Plains,
consider the following image which occurs towards the end of the film.
A protest demonstration for a Carter reading meets on one side of the
bookstore parking lot, with signs declaring "Israelis are for peace."
Across the street, a counter-protest demonstration stands in support
of Carter, with signs declaring "Palestinians are for peace." Each
side, supposedly in favor of the same thing, yells at the other at the
top of their lungs until we can barely make out the words, a virtual
tower of babel spread across a parking lot. This would be a high point
in a great documentary - as it is, it feels more like a taunt, letting
us know just how better the film we're watching could have been.

Demme's film might be confounding at times, but it's no tower of
babel. That would require many competing voices. Would that Demme's
film had at least one.