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 Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid book tour, Man From Plains. 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 film.
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.