Jimmy Carter, radical ex-president, in Jonathan Demme's documentary | Film Review | Indy Week
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Jimmy Carter, radical ex-president, in Jonathan Demme's documentary 

Man on fire

click to enlarge Former President Jimmy Carter, still grinning after all these years - PHOTO BY ALEX COHN/ SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

In the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men, a crusty, taciturn old-school Texas sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones delivers recurrent monologues (longer and more numerous in the source novel by Cormac McCarthy) on a theme that might be concisely summarized as "America going to hell."

Evil is eternal, but the country he grew up in is turning rotten in a way specific to this time and place, the melancholy lawman's ruminations suggest. Something crucial has changed, an unnoticed pivot passed. It can hardly be coincidental, I thought while watching the Coens' dark drama, that this theme unfurls in a story set in 1980.

That date, at least, coincides with my own estimate of when America's mind turned a fateful corner, the one separating a polity based on observable reality and one heavily infused with solipsistic fantasy. The fantasy surge, if you want to call it that, had been predicted by media theorists observing the accelerating effects of television's spread across the culture. In movies, it hit like a tidal wave in the mid-'70s, when the most serious and intelligent half-decade in American cinema was suddenly swamped by the arrival of TV-influenced and -advertised blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars.

In politics, the surge brought us the election of 1980, when the electorate ousted a sitting president who was surely one of the most brilliant, humane and principled men ever to occupy the office—a farmer turned nuclear physicist who put human rights at the top of his agenda and forged the first peace agreement between Arabs and Israelis—in favor of a second-rate Hollywood actor with a Pepsodent smile, a shoe-polish pompadour and a TV pitchman's silky way of making people "feel good about themselves."

They will tell you the election was about the Iran Hostage Crisis, stagflation, liberal versus conservative, "malaise" versus "morning in America." I submit it was about the displacement of an electronic media environment offering information about the external world by one dedicated to invading and manipulating the viewer's inner world.

In the Orwellian inversion that followed, one of the most prevalent and preposterous of popular myths was that of the "liberal" media. Let us be clear about what happened then. Jimmy Carter, America's 39th president and a nominal liberal, was vilified and undermined from the first by the country's supposedly liberal media elite—partly, no doubt, for being a Southerner and a genuine, devout Christian, but primarily, I think, for representing the reality principle in our rapidly deteriorating political discourse.

Ronald Reagan, his nominally conservative successor, was the instrument of a true overthrow of traditional American values, grinning and aw-shucksing mom-and-apple pieties while propping up murderous dictatorships, doing end-runs round the Constitution and—most importantly—embodying a new media environment of deception and distraction, the pathway to news cycles dominated by Britney and Paris and wars launched on the pretexts of fabrications like "weapons of mass destruction."

If Reagan was the veritable George Washington of our new, media-engendered Fantasyland, Jonathan Demme's invaluable new documentary Jimmy Carter Man from Plains reminds us what was there before "fantasy" attached itself.

Early into Demme's sharply crafted portrait, filmed over three months in late 2006 and early 2007, Carter, riding along a country road near his home, notes that this property has been in his family for more than 170 years. "The precious nature of land," as he puts it, has been in the Carter bloodstream for generations. Tagging along as he visits neighbors and a local church cemetery, you can feel how deeply rooted he is in this particular red clay soil, its cultivation and the human and animal life it supports.

The beauty and sadness of this moment stems, of course, from the inevitable realization that it almost surely represents the last gasp of the Jeffersonian Ideal in its original form. The man who comes from the land, who learns a stewardship that gradually extends from soil and family to community to state to nation, who offers and embodies a kind of sane realism based on his own natal groundedness—surely we have seen the last of this breed, this human foundation stone of our democratic experiment. After him come postmodern pretenders and predators and a faltering public grasp of reality itself.

Although it eschews biography in order to follow Carter on an intensive nationwide book tour, Demme's chronicle touches on numerous aspects of a life that arguably has been as extraordinarily influential and beneficent since his presidency as during it. We meet Carter the Sunday school teacher, the author of 21 books and Grammy winner for his audio recordings. We see him pounding nails in New Orleans' Ninth Ward for Habitat for Humanity, and nailing the Bush gang for its "disgraceful" response to Katrina. We glean that he has the ear of virtually every political leader in the world, and often engages in crucial behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts. We get tantalizing glimpses of the work of the Carter Center, ranging from worldwide election monitoring to disease prevention to Darfur—all of them campaigns that Carter takes an active hand in.

As was the case with the 2005 documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon, I came out of Jimmy Carter Man of Plains thinking that its most important audience would be college-age viewers. I can imagine smart young people being staggered—alternately surprised and chagrined—that a man of such intelligence, principle, character and unwavering dedication to the global common good occupied the nation's highest office less than 30 years ago. Compared to the malevolent Alfred E. Neuman who now resides there, Carter almost seems a higher life-form temporarily on loan from Alpha Centauri.

How, a younger viewer might wonder, could such an exemplary figure be consigned to a shadowy place where forgetting and a vague disrepute meet? The answer to that, without question, lies in Carter's career-long martyr's role of embodying the reality principle, thereby pricking the media Fantasy Bubble that has come to enclose the American mind.

No greater proof of that Bubble's insidious ubiquity exists than the enormous success of the so-called 'Israel Lobby' (a general term covering an assortment of U.S. lobbying and pressure groups) in squelching political and media debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Just as every major U.S. news organization carefully toes the pro-Israel lobby's party line, virtually no politician running for national office dares acknowledge the Palestinians' plight; even advocating an "even-handed" (i.e., fair and balanced) approach to the situation risks calling down a lethal flood of opposition money from AIPAC and its ilk. Only retired politicians can question the lobby's power—and then at considerable risk.

Such is the perilous morass Carter deliberately plunges into by publishing his book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, which we see him barnstorming the country to promote, discuss and defend in Demme's film.

The amount of vitriol unleashed by the book is, naturally, torrential. Yes, Carter allows, the use of "apartheid" in the title is provocative (albeit accurate too). And he points out that the two crucial terms in the title are "peace" (a word almost never heard in current discourse) and "Palestine." Discussing that beleaguered place takes him back to his first and greatest reality-check.

"I own land in south Georgia that my family has had since 1833," he says. "I can just imagine how I would feel, and what my physical reaction would be, if foreign people with chainsaws came in and cut down my ancient trees. ... For Palestinians, these trees have not only monetary value but religious and symbolic value. Some of them have been there for a thousand years. This is so completely at odds with what I've always experienced as the wonderful new nation of Israel—based on peace and justice and equity and democracy and human rights—that it's almost inconceivable. But I think it ought to be understood."

This reasonable plea for understanding provokes reactions that range from knee-jerk to ugly. While the huge number of interviews that Carter passes through (including Charlie Rose, Jay Leno and Wolf Blitzer) are almost uniformly superficial, with the interviewers dependably defending the status quo, we also get to hear the odious Alan Dershowitz referring to Palestinians as "cockroaches" and see an anti-Carter demonstrator screaming shrilly at Palestinians, "You're nobody! Nobody cares about you! Nobody!"

On the other hand, when Carter marches straight into the lion's den by appearing before the mostly Jewish student body of Brandeis University, he manages to open a dialogue that is moving and wondrously hopeful, since it shows there's very little distance between what he's actually saying and these students' innate sense of fairness and justice.

In a sense, the very existence of Jimmy Carter Man from Plains is itself cause for hope. In recent years, the Israel lobby's influence—which, as Carter and others argue, has become inimical to Israel's chances of achieving peace with its neighbors—ran virtually unchecked. But that seems to be changing: 2007 saw the groundbreaking publication of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy as well as the release of this film, which, cleverly, is as much a disquisition on the lobby as it is a portrait of Carter. (The film comes from the forward-leaning Hollywood company Participant Productions, the creation of former eBay head Jeff Skoll.)

One book and one movie do not, unfortunately, assure that the coming election debates on Palestine-Israel will contain anything other than the usual lobby-approved fantasy rhetoric. But they do show that the truth embargo can be broken and reality reasserted.

Just before the Independent went to press, the opening of Jimmy Carter Man from Plains was postponed. Contact your local art house for updates.


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