Program Length: 126 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Languages: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English, French
Reviewing a documentary such as Jimmy Carter Man From Plains is fraught with peril, because the subject matter – Carter’s book about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories – is so explosive. I will therefore try to avoid taking sides on the issues which are raised in this most intriguing film.
In 2006 Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States, published a controversial book with the provocative title Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The thesis of the book is that there will never be peace between Israel and the Palestinians as long as Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and Gaza. The book further argues that the Israel’s erection of walls to keep the Palestinians and Israelis separate is a form of apartheid.
Noted film directory Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) was given unprecedented access to Carter as he embarked upon an ambitious national publicity tour to promote the book. While the former president freely acknowledged that he intended that the title of the book be provocative, he was not fully prepared for the firestorm of controversy which erupted, including claims that the book is anti-Semitic.
At the age of 82 when the tour begins, Carter exhibits stamina which would put many men half his age to shame. There is very little that is glamorous about a book tour. There are frequent plane rides, different hotels every night, early morning interview appearances at television and radio stations, and periodic encounters with demonstrators (both anti-Carter and pro-Carter). The viewer can sense Carter’s frustration when he is asked dubious questions by interviewers who obviously have not bothered to read the book, and there is some tension when he gets into a heated argument during an interview by Charlie Rose. At book signings he often has praise heaped upon him by admiring fans, but he also gets an earful from people who believe that he has unfairly maligned Israel.
Some cynical critics have complained that Demme treats Carter like a saint, and in fact the former president is portrayed in a mostly positive light. However, this criticism strikes me as unfair because, on a strictly personal level, there does not seem to be much about Carter not to like. Scenes of him at home in Plains, Georgia make it clear that he is much beloved by his friends and neighbors. What bad things can you say about a man who not only has been a driving force behind Habitat For Humanity, but who at the age of 82 still takes hammer in hand to help build new homes in New Orleans?
Critics of Carter’s book include law professor Alan Dershowitz, who appears several times in the film. Carter was scheduled to address students at Brandeis University, but the school tried to change the terms and require Carter to debate Dershowitz. Carter refused to debate, for reasons which I do not find to be entirely convincing, but his address to a largely hostile audience at Brandeis went on as scheduled. To their credit, the students asked pointed and relevant questions but remained respectful. At the conclusion, Carter suggested that the students send their own delegation to the West Bank and Gaza and see the conditions there for themselves.
Carter wrote the book because he was frustrated that there had been no peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in years. In that respect his book may have been a success, because peace talks have since resumed. However, if Carter’s fundamental point is correct – that a prerequisite for peace is Israel’s total withdrawal from the occupied territories – peace will remain an elusive goal.
Whatever you own opinions, it would not hurt to follow the advice which Carter gave to the students at Brandeis. Check out the film, perhaps read Carter’s book, and decide for yourself.
The anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1 widescreen transfer is very good. The original footage is consistently sharp, with minimal grain. Colors and flesh tones are accurate and the DVD transfer is free of digital artifacts. There is also some archival footage from Carter’s term in the White House, including a very amusing appearance by his mother, Lillian Carter, on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. There is also footage of President Carter brokering the Camp David accords which led to a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. The archival material shows its age but is still very watchable.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is fine and reproduces the film’s soundtrack without any problems. The film has a very nice musical score which is used to great advantage. Apart from the music there are not many opportunities in this documentary for the surround channels to do very much, but the scenes filmed outdoors in Georgia have some nice separation and dimensionality.
Jimmy Carter Man From Plains comes with a few interesting extras. There is a running commentary by director Jonathan Demme and a featurette called “The Music Sessions” which shows how the musical soundtrack was recorded.
There are also a number of deleted scenes, including a strange scene filmed in Plains in which Carter expresses his belief that an old house near where he grew up is in fact haunted.
The single disc comes in “green” packaging which is similar to that used for the DVD of Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. The disc is held in a sleeve inside a slim cardboard package made from “100% post-consumer recycled fiber paper.” It is a bit flimsy, but on the other hand it does not take up much space.
The Final Analysis
Anyone interested in Jimmy Carter and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians will want to see this film. You may find it to be as provocative as the title to Carter’s book.
Equipment used for this review:
Toshiba HD-XA2 DVD player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: March 25, 2008