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Documentary on Jimmy Carter whitewashes history

1 star out of 4

When he left the Oval Office in defeat in 1980, Jimmy Carter was considered one of the least effective presidents in U.S. history. Since that time, he's established himself as a pre-eminent statesman, humanitarian, Nobel laureate and bestselling author.

He's turned more lemons into lemonade than perhaps any other politician in this nation's history.

Whether you love or hate the man and his work, no one can argue he is a fascinating individual and someone who would be the ideal subject for a sprawling, biographical documentary. With Carter's life story as the palette and Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme painting the canvas, the expectations are understandably high. Given these two powerful, almost fool-proof components, it makes the unmitigated failure of the final product all the more disappointing.

After opening with a "Tonight Show" interview with the president's late mother Lillian, Demme travels with the president to his family's nearly 200-year-old farm in Plains. The president speaks of his upbringing by sharecroppers and the descendants of slaves.

For a few moments, we feel we're about to witness something special. Then the bottom falls out.

For 115 of the next 120 minutes, Demme follows the president on his most recent tour, promoting the controversial book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." Would you like to see the president in a makeup chair? There are four of those scenes. How about watching him and his luggage enter and exit hotels or travel though airports? There's a good 15 minutes of that.

The majority of the time, the president is being interviewed by assorted media outlets who all want to know why he included the word "apartheid" in the book's title. Was it to create interest in the book, stimulate debate, to clarify suspicions of the president's perceived anti-Semitism, or all or none of the above? The question is never satisfactorily answered.

In the only bits of non-fluff included in the movie, Demme shows clips featuring Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz and Emory University professor Kenneth Stein. Dershowitz challenged the president to a debate (which was declined) at Brandeis University and is given about 30 seconds in the film to vent his perspective.

Stein, a man who helped the president establish the Carter Center only to resign his post after the book came out, is seen only in stock news footage yet is still able to firmly establish his opposing viewpoints. These two brief bursts of clarity amidst one of the most blatant whitewashings of all time only amplify the film's fawning, pedestrian shortcomings.

Are you old enough to remember the Iranian hostage crisis the president oversaw in the late '70s? You'll find nothing about it here. You will, however see a minute-long "reunion" featuring the president and a single former hostage.

Well, what about the interminably drawn-out gas shortage from the same time? There's not even a mention of that. Demme must have included something about Carter's political meltdown during the 1979 presidential race. Nope. Not a word. There's never even a mention that Carter was once the governor of Georgia.

This is a biography?

Demme's cream-puff movie is one of the most glaring and mishandled opportunities in the history of documentary filmmaking. (Sony Pictures Classics)