Jimmy Carter's Ready for His Biopic

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A new documentary by acclaimed director Jonathan Demme, Jimmy Carter Man From Plains, charts the rise of an ex-president. And Darfur Now considers the human toll in the Sudanese conflict.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Now the big movie coming out this weekend, "American Gangster," is a fictionalized account of an actual drug lord, Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington.

But if you're in the mood for some real-life drama, there are two documentaries entering theaters, each political and personal. One's about the post-presidential life of the 39th commander-in-chief of the United States, and one is about the genocide in Darfur told through the eyes of six people associated with the crisis.

NPR film critic Bob Mondello is here to guide us through.

Hi, Bob.

BOB MONDELLO: Hey, Alison. How are you?

STEWART: I'm great. Let's start with "Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains," directed by Jonathan Demme. It's a - is this a loving portrayal of Jimmy Carter? Is this a - is this a day in the life? A couple of weeks in the life of Jimmy Carter?

MONDELLO: Several weeks in the life of. It was when he was doing a tour recently for his book, "Palestine (Peace or Apartheid)." And that - the last word of that title got him in all kinds of binds with a variety of different people. And as he was touring around, he had to keep on answering the same questions from an awful lot of people. And what's interesting is, an awful lot of those people seemed to be NPR…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONDELLO: …talk show hosts, which - I don't know he managed to miss you guys. I guess we - maybe we weren't on the air quite…

LUKE BURBANK, host:

Yeah, it was that the show didn't exist.

MONDELLO: Oh, darn.

BURBANK: I think it was part of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONDELLO: But he talked to all kinds of people, and, you know, including Diane Rehm, and was really pretty amazing in his answers to rather tough questions.

STEWART: Well, let's take a listen to a piece of that actual interview from Diane Rehm's show.

(Soundbite of radio show, "The Diane Rehm Show")

President JIMMY CARTER: I had a choice then. I could have destroyed Iran with the formidable military power that I control as commander-in-chief. In the process, every one of our hostages would instantly have been assassinated by the Iranians. And I would have probably killed 10 or 20,000 completely innocent Iranians because a few militants were holding our hostages. I don't think that the situation would be any better between us and Iran now if I had destroyed a major part of Iran with missiles and bombs.

STEWART: One of the things I think is sort of interesting is Jimmy Carter is often thought of as one of the most productive presidents - somebody who got out of office and did some pretty interesting and positive things, from building homes - he's a very active guy.

MONDELLO: Right.

STEWART: I'm wondering if that is the way he comes off in this film, or do you get a more fragile view of an elder man?

MONDELLO: Oh, no, no, no - absolutely active and getting into fights with practically everybody as he goes around the country.

It's really - I mean, the Habitat for Humanity thing that he does. He does that in New Orleans while attacking the current president's policies on what happened after Katrina. He - you see him swimming wherever he goes. I mean, in hotels and things like that, he always seems to swim. He's a very active guy, and he seems to wear out everybody around him. And it seems like that almost happens to the director.

So, I mean, it's kind of a remarkable portrait of a man. You kind of wish you would be like this when you get to be 83.

STEWART: The next film I want to talk about is about the government-backed Arab militias killing millions and displacing hundreds of thousands of black Africans in Darfur. It's a film called "Darfur Now," and it takes a look at the crisis through the eyes of six people. We have an organizer at one of the refugee camps, the chief prosecutor in the case, a 20-something activist, who we're going to talk to a little bit.

There are six storylines. Bob, does it work to have all of these storylines going at the same time?

MONDELLO: I think it's almost the only way you can do this story. I - you know, when I saw the title, "Darfur Now," I thought how on Earth are they going to make this a palatable story? It's not that audiences aren't game to see films about serious topics, but that this one is so overwhelming and so distressing. And what the filmmaker did was he decided to talk about it through the eyes of activists who are trying to change it. And that way, it's not - I mean, it's not just impossible to watch. You get some sense of hope.

What he does was - I mean, I think if he followed any one thread consistently, it would become about something other than Darfur. And so what he does is he jumps from inside the country with a guy who's running around, trying to get food to people to - and to the man who is doing the prosecution for the world court, who is from Argentina and who kind of identifies what is happening there with what happened in his own country when there was a dictatorship. And then to American activists and to some very big stars, who make all of this seem like something that you can kind of get your head around.

STEWART: Yeah. Here's a clip from the film. It's actor Don Cheadle. He's using his celebrity and his devotion to this cause to bring light to it.

MONDELLO: Right.

STEWART: Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "Darfur Now")

Mr. DON CHEADLE (Actor): I have looked at myself and said, well, what can you do? I thought, well, the best asset, really, that I have right now is that, for the moment, I am a celebrity. People stick a mic in front of me and say, what's going on? You know, and while I'm talking about, you know, George Clooney and Brad Pitt, I can also talk about Darfur.

STEWART: Should we see the film?

MONDELLO: Oh, yeah. I mean, it's a really powerful picture. I - it's powerful even that it makes you feel like maybe something could happen. And it - like a number of other films - is about, you know, telling you to go out and do something with your life. I mean, you'll get that message from, say, the - "An Inconvenient Truth," from this, from the Jimmy Carter picture, and also for a picture that's coming out soon with Robert Redford and Meryl Streep.

STEWART: Oh, well, we'll talk about that next time.

BURBANK: Hmm.

MONDELLO: That sounds excellent.

STEWART: NPR's Bob Mondello. Thank you so much.

MONDELLO: Hey, it's always a pleasure.

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'Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains'

Jimmy Carter

Controversy greeted the use of the freighted word "apartheid" in the title of Jimmy Carter's latest book. Alex Cohn/Real Peace Productions, Inc./Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Cohn/Real Peace Productions, Inc./Sony Pictures Classics
  • Director: Jonathan Demme
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 125 minutes

At the outset of Jonathan Demme's documentary, former President Jimmy Carter talks about the Georgia farmland that's been in his family for generations, and about how he'd feel if someone tried to take it from him. The moment initially seems disconnected from what follows, but it turns out to be a fine setup for the controversy in which Carter is soon embroiled.

At the center of that firestorm: Carter's 21st book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, in which the possession of and control over land is very much the point. It's the final, provocative word of that title — "apartheid" — that starts the fuss.

As Demme follows Carter on a book tour, in which he's queried by a host of show hosts (Tavis Smiley and NPR's Terry Gross and Diane Rehm among them) — plus everything from long lines of enthusiastic book-buyers to vitriolic rabbis heading angry crowds — we hear what seems like every possible permutation of the arguments surrounding the former president's choice of words, and of subjects.

Though Carter is articulate to the point of eloquence, this is arguably too much of a good thing.

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