New documentary, ‘Carterland,’ re-evaluates Jimmy Carter’s presidency

The Pattiz brothers were first drawn to filming a documentary about former President Jimmy Carter during their work as videographers for the National Parks Service, when they discovered Carter's huge impact on the parks system. Courtesy of the Pattiz brothers
Caption
The Pattiz brothers were first drawn to filming a documentary about former President Jimmy Carter during their work as videographers for the National Parks Service, when they discovered Carter's huge impact on the parks system. Courtesy of the Pattiz brothers

Credit: Pattiz brothers

Credit: Pattiz brothers

Film by two Georgia brothers celebrates ‘misunderstood’ president

“Carterland,” a new documentary that looks at the Jimmy Carter presidency, opens with a frank monologue from Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale.

“The story usually goes about President Carter: Well, he’s a nice guy and a good person, a great ex-president, but he’s a failed president, who was never really able to rise to the challenges of his time.”

We hear Mondale’s voice-over as we watch old footage of a jubilant Carter shaking hands with well-wishers who surround his motorcade.

“That’s what you hear; that’s the story we’ve been told,” says Mondale, as the image switches to his contemporary, careworn face. “But,” he adds, “it’s all wrong.”

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To right that wrong, two brothers from Peachtree City have dedicated two years of work and gathered the insight of a host of politicians, historians, journalists and educators in a documentary film that celebrates Georgia’s only president.

They follow the example of author Jonathan Alter, whose 2020 Carter biography “His Very Best” did much the same, and who also is interviewed in the film.

“The story of Carter’s political career has been told by the people who beat him,” said Jim Pattiz, 28. “We wanted to tell the other side of that story.”

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“Carterland” will premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival, where films will be screened in a medley of COVID-safe formats, both in-person, drive-in and virtual. “Carterland” is to be shown in all three settings, said Will Pattiz, 29.

The movie is a hymn to Carter’s considerable achievements, in particular the strides he made in energy policy, international relations and conservation.

It’s buoyed by an expansive score from Andrew Seistrup, whose work has also accompanied National Geographic specials.

The melancholy in Seistrup’s music is purposeful: Carter’s defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980 is portrayed in “Carterland” as a tragedy.

“The country, the way we look at it, was at an inflection point in 1981,” said Jim. “We see that Carter was out on the forefront of a lot of these issues that we’re only confronting today. We look at that as a missed opportunity. That’s the real tragedy of it, not that he didn’t get that second term but the fact that his vision lost, and America chose a different path.”

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Jimmy Carter's dedication to fostering the growth of clean energy was demonstrated in his decision to install solar panels on the roof of the White House. Courtesy of the Pattiz brothers
Caption
Jimmy Carter's dedication to fostering the growth of clean energy was demonstrated in his decision to install solar panels on the roof of the White House. Courtesy of the Pattiz brothers

Credit: Pattiz brothers

Credit: Pattiz brothers

By 1979, Carter was already looking toward breaking the U.S. dependence on fossil fuels, not only because it gave foreign powers leverage over U.S. policy, but because he anticipated an inevitable shift to clean energy. The next year, he would be the first president to consider the impact of carbon pollution on climate change.

So while the U.S. was in the midst of an oil shortage brought on by OPEC, Carter took reporters to the roof of the White House to show them the new solar panels installed there to heat water for the ground floor of the West Wing.

Americans waiting in line at gas stations were probably not interested in solar panels. They needed gas to get to work. In any case, Carter’s effort to promote alternative energy was soon gutted by the Reagan administration, which cut research and development by two-thirds and allowed the tax credit for solar to elapse.

The Pattiz brothers grew up in Peachtree City, the sons of two educators. They developed an interest in Carter not through politics but through hiking.

They were working in corporate filmmaking when a trip to the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona inspired them to turn their talents toward these federally-protected natural wonders. While shooting videos for the National Park Service, they became aware of Carter’s impact on the system.

Carter had put 150 million acres into protected status, a landmass bigger than California. It was the largest expansion of federally protected lands in history, and it more than doubled the size of the National Parks system. He had eclipsed Teddy Roosevelt.

Will wondered, “How could a guy who has done so much good for the environment and public lands, be considered a bad president?”

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He and his brother began to develop a different story, highlighting Carter’s conservation work, his peace-brokering deal at Camp David, his careful shepherding of the Panama Canal handoff, his patience dealing with Iran, and even his “crisis of confidence” speech, thereafter typed as his “malaise” speech (even though he never used the word).

In that speech, “He was begging the American people to come with him, to look forward, and to sacrifice, and it didn’t work,” said Jim.

The movie makes the point that while Carter asked Americans to turn down their thermostats, put on a sweater, and drive fewer miles, Reagan “didn’t ask Americans to give up anything.”

Americans preferred the second option. Even the brothers’ home county of Fayette voted almost two-to-one for Reagan in 1980.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Tom Steyer, hedge fund manager and liberal activist, told the filmmakers, “because what we see is somebody who is absolutely right, who is decades ahead of his time, who wants to pull the whole country with him, and we know that it’s going to take a generation to catch up.”

Yet, “Carterland” demonstrates that the president often failed to market his vision effectively.

Robert Strong, professor of political science at Washington and Lee, tells the camera that Carter “wasn’t particularly interested in rhetorical flair. He wanted policy success. And I think he believed that if he produced policy success, the American public would see it and reward him accordingly. (But) maybe politics isn’t that straightforward. Maybe you do have to worry more about how you communicate and how you summarize what it is you’re doing.”

Among the many interviews included in the film, a sit-down with the contemporary Jimmy Carter doesn’t pop up until the end of the movie.

That sequencing reflects the fact that Carter didn’t agree to meet with the brothers until the very end of production. Said Jim, “We thought now we could bring in this vanquished hero, and he could tell people the way forward.”

(Carter advises listeners to stick to their principles.)

Directors Jim Pattiz (left) and Will Pattiz (right) meet with Jimmy Carter during the filming of "Carterland." Courtesy of the Pattiz brothers
Caption
Directors Jim Pattiz (left) and Will Pattiz (right) meet with Jimmy Carter during the filming of "Carterland." Courtesy of the Pattiz brothers

Credit: Pattiz brothers

Credit: Pattiz brothers

The brothers live on opposite sides of the continent — Jim in Bangor, Maine, and Will in Portland, Oregon. Through the course of production they received considerable help from their parents, Tony and Jill Pattiz, who still live in Fayette County, and who dug through archives at the Carter Center in Atlanta for images and documents.

Will said working with family members has great advantages. “We had good brotherly fun, yelling and screaming and beating the crap out of each other.”

Said Jim, “One of the nice things about working with a brother is we can be cruel to each other in the editing decisions, but at end of the day we still love each other. We get over it quickly. You can’t do that with somebody else, with a co-worker situation, you can’t say ‘that idea is godawful.’”

EVENT PREVIEW

“Carterland”

April 22-May 2. Atlanta Film Festival with online screenings, and in-person and drive-in screenings.

Dad’s Garage Theatre, 569 Ezzard St., Atlanta, and The Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave., Atlanta.

Visit atlantafilmfestival.com for times, dates and ticket prices.