Releasing a book entitled Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid in today's stormy political climate is akin to what boxers would call "leading with your chin." For the 82-year-old Jimmy Carter, the retired and retiring former President, to drop this particular bomb now seems surprising, but there's still some fire left in the soft-spoken Southern Democrat, who clearly sees the current Middle East crisis as a bitter repudiation of the policies he advanced to win peace in the region. Jonathan Demme's fly-on-the-wall documentary Man From Plains follows Carter on a three-month book tour from late 2006 to early 2007, when he found himself put on the defensive, mostly by people who didn't bother to read past the title. And yet through it all, Jimmy Carter is still Jimmy Carter: A measured man of principle, given more toward substantive policy discussions than soundbites and fiery rhetoric, and inclined to find common ground rather than pick fights.
These may be the qualities of a great man, but they're not exactly the stuff of a great documentary subject, especially given how hard Carter works to defuse the emotions stirred up by his book. Despite some typical Demme grace notes on the eclectic soundtrack (featuring music by alt-country troubadour Alejandro Escovedo) and the behind-the-curtain glimpses at the media machine, Man From Plains doesn't give much shape to the rambling tour footage. For better or worse, it yields the floor entirely to its subject, which has been an winning strategy for Demme in the past, but Carter isn't a David Byrne (Stop Making Sense) or a Spalding Gray (Swimming To Cambodia) or a Cousin Bobby, and his lack of personal dynamism does the film no favors.
It's hard to gauge whether Carter regrets his use of the loaded word "apartheid" to describe Palestinian repression in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but if he wanted to use it as a conversation-starter, mission accomplished. On outlets as diverse as Al Jezeera and Israeli broadcast TV—and every conceivable source in between—Carter argues convincingly about the repressive impact of installing 40-foot security walls within the occupied territories, but in doing so, opens himself up to charges of anti-Israel bias (and, more risibly, anti-Semitism). Whether likening the situation in Israel to the one formerly in South Africa enhances the political dialogue is questionable, no matter how many qualifications Carter makes to advance his argument. But Man From Plains, in its overly relaxed way, gives viewers ample time to hear the man out.