The Pattiz Brothers Jimmy Carter
The legacy of the oldest living former president is getting a fresh look with a new documentary.
Jimmy Carter has been out of the White House for more than 40 years and, after decades as a Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian, he has been living a quiet life with his wife of almost 75 years, Rosalynn Carter, in their tiny Georgia hometown of Plains.
"They're just very active citizens in this 600-person town," grandson Jason Carter tells PEOPLE. "[They're] trying to help people fix their roofs, make sure the town is healthy and happy and has a Boys and Girls Club that people can go to and get support and things like that."
It's that volunteerism — how, even into his 90s, President Carter was working on homes for Habitat for Humanity — that has long defined him rather than his one term as commander-in-chief, voted out amid disapproval over inflation and the Iran hostage crisis.
But did Carter's most famous political failure, losing re-election to Ronald Reagan, come to overshadow his many White House successes?
That's the argument of the documentary Carterland, which premiered this month at the Carter Center in Atlanta. (Distribution plans are pending.)
The film, from Jim and Will Pattiz, spotlights Carter's legacy as an environmentalist and energy conservationist, a champion of civil and human rights and an avowed opponent of armed conflict.
No solder died in battle during his term while Carter still sought peace both in the Middle East, with a historic gathering of the leaders of Egypt and Israel at Camp David, and between the U.S. and many Latin American countries, with the Panama Canal Treaty.
The Pattiz Brothers
The Pattiz Brothers Jimmy Carter (center)
"Ultimately what his legacy is, is someone who was a peacemaker and a person of faith and someone who told the truth and did what he thought was best," says grandson Jason, an Atlanta attorney and former politician who ran for Georgia's governor.
As biographer Jonathan Alter, who appears in Carterland, previously told PEOPLE: Carter is "one of the most misunderstood presidents in recent American history."
"That he was a bad president is not true," Alter said. "A lot about his time in office was rocky and difficult. He was swamped by events, many of them out of his control. But he also got a helluva lot done — a substantive and far-sighted success. He made a number of mistakes, but he also got more legislation through than any post-war president except Lyndon Johnson."
Carterland, based on 30-plus interviews and a wealth of archival material, details some of those achievements. That includes the brokering of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at Camp David, in what are known as the Camp David Accords.
Carter also called for huge investments in solar energy and knew the importance of land preservation and acted on it, singing into law the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, protecting more than 100 million acres of Alaskan land at one time — the largest expansion of conserved land in U.S. history.
"He was 40 years ahead of his time on the environment, but only if you look at from a political lens," Jason, who also appears in Carterland, says now. "Maybe politically he was 40 years ahead. It's too bad that our politics took so long to catch up on those issues."
"One thing that comes from that documentary is — listen to the words that were spoken in '78 or '79, and you realize that you could repeat them today and they would almost all still be true and in some instances make even more sense," Jason says.
Carterland also draws focus to the former president's personal values, which were fodder at the time for the argument that he was a decent man but an inept leader — perhaps too open-hearted and righteous, or self-righteous, for the job. (He famously said he would have no chief of staff and sought a more open White House, like "spokes on a wheel," while a 1977 Washington Post report described disorganization and chaos.)
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The Pattiz Brothers Jimmy Carter (center) with Jim and Will Pattiz
But those principles should also be re-evaluated, especially with time, those who worked with him say.
"People see now that Carter was at a pole," James Speth, the chairman of Carter's Council on Environmental Quality, told The Guardian. "Carter was the opposite of [Donald] Trump — and everything that people despised about him. Carter had integrity, honesty, candor and a commitment to the public good of all else. Carter was a different man, totally."
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, he and his wife have maintained a lower profile in Plains.
Late last month, President Joe Biden visited the couple at their home. "They're just very close friends," their grandson says.
In a video tribute Biden made for Carterland, he talks about that years-long bond and how, as a young senator, he was the first elected official outside of Georgia to endorse Carter for president.
"He showed us throughout his entire life what it means to be a public servant, with emphasis on the word servant," Biden said. "Your service is the definition of patriotism."