- Movie Rating -

Carterland (2021)

| August 29, 2021

[This review is part of my ongoing coverage of the films screened at Birmingham Alabama’s 23rd Annual Sidewalk Film Festival]

Was Jimmy Carter a maligned genius?  History’s greatest monster?  Or was he merely a functionary who occupied the Oval Office and made no impact whatsoever?  The very strange contrast to the public image of Jimmy Carter rests largely in the idea that he was more successful as a public figure in his ex-Presidency (as of this writing, the longest in history) then he was during the four years that he served as leader of the free world.  That is largely how I have seen him.  I am an admirer of Jimmy Carter as an individual but as a President I have never really seen him as anything more than a mediocre caretaker.

The Pattiz Brothers are out to change that opinion.  Their very loving documentary Carterland traces Carter’s four years in the White House from his rise as a one-term Governor of Georgia until his ultimate defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan in the wake of the hostage crisis.  Here is a man who entered the office of the White House as a clean-slate alternative to the administration of Richard Nixon, Jerry Ford, Lyndon Johnson – basically anyone attached to Watergate or Vietnam – and then left office with the public embarrassment of the Iran hostage crisis that was still hanging over his head (the hostages were purposely being held until Reagan was sworn in and Carter was out).

Carterland illustrates what The President tried to accomplish, not only with regards to the hostages but with regards to racial and gender equality, economic policy, sustainability and conservation that he hoped would be maintained long after he left office (they weren’t) and did all of this with a frequent disregard for his own chances for re-election.  The movie reminds us over and over again that Jimmy Carter wasn’t interested in his standing in the polls as long as he got the job done, that he was willing to sabotage his political future for something that he believed in.

That’s a noble statement and I’m sure that much of it is true.  Carter did spend a great deal of his time at the end of his term negotiating for the release of the hostages when he should have been campaigning, and yes, he was the champion of a great deal of forward-thinking programs that were ultimately shredded by the succeeding administration.  However, I think that the movie lays on his one-man crusade a bit thick.  A lot of the information here is skewed to make Carter look more heroic than he actually was.  Plus, the movie glosses over a lot of his failures such as Operation Eagle Claw, his inability to unify the Democratic Party and, of course, his dealings with Middle East countries despite his success at getting Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin to talk to one another instead of shouting.  Those darker moments are crucial to Carter’s story and they present a narrative as to why he wasn’t able to secure re-election.

Never-the-less, what I came away with was a better respect for his contribution as a public servant than I did before, but I can’t deny the flaws not only in the narrative but also in the filmmaking.  One element that the Pattiz brothers add to the film is a persistent, ongoing use of music.  There’s a soundtrack that plays under every single scene of this movie, making it feel like a 73-minute political ad.  And I don’t mean that it leaves and comes back – this soundtrack plays under every minute of this film, every single minute.  It is very distracting, and so is the absence of Carter himself.  The former president shows up at the very end to gives some closing remarks, but shouldn’t he have been the one to tell this story?  Where are his words?  This is a good film that needed a more personal and certainly more divided point of view to give us the full picture of the Carter years.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2021) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary