The poor reviews of Our Brand is Crisis are puzzling, since it’s one of the few non-documentary films to show successfully a) what rip-roaring fun politics can be when it’s only about marketing and b) what terrible things can happen when it’s only about marketing. The protagonist, Jane Bodine a.k.a. “Calamity Jane” (Sandra Bullock), has been lured out of retirement by gobs of money and a challenge: Can she convince the Bolivian people to elect as president an unpopular, arrogant, cigar-chomping oligarch named Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida)—who was already president once and bungled the job?
Our Brand is Crisis hits a lot of clunky notes and the end is unforgivably cornball, but it’s still one of the liveliest political black comedies I’ve seen in a while. The pacing is lickety-split, the talk is boisterous, and the cast is all aces. The big reason it works, though, is that it takes its premise from Rachel Boynton’s phenomenal (but little-known) 2005 documentary of the same name. Boynton traveled to Bolivia to cover the activity of a high-priced U.S. consulting firm, Greenberg Carville, and Shrum, in the 2002 presidential race, and she had amazing—frankly, flabbergasting—access. She showed how American marketing techniques never before used in that region steered a desperate country towards a rich, arrogant former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (“Goni”), who proved catastrophically out of touch.
In my review of the documentary, I wrote:
“The process of “framing” Goni to look like something he isn’t could be the stuff of a rambunctious campaign comedy like Primary Colors or, for that matter, the documentary The War Room... And parts of Our Brand Is Crisis are darkly amusing. But Boynton has done her own framing: This campaign is a precursor to tragedy. She opens with footage of an anti-government riot that came less than a year after the election. When the gunfire stops, the camera moves in on a boy sitting on the steps of a building, his head partly covered by his coat as if he’s grabbing a nap. It’s only when the camera is on top of him that we see the pool of blood. The image of that boy haunts Our Brand Is Crisis, so that the U.S. strategists who do a bang-up job of getting the wrong man elected to the wrong place at the wrong time look like agents of catastrophe.”
Well, this is the rambunctious comedy version of Our Brand Is Crisis, framed by director David Gordon Green and the British writer Peter Straughan not with a dead boy but the personal odyssey of a fictional character. At the start, Jane has been out of the consulting game for several years, following a traumatic mayoral race. (A heavy back story is subsequently revealed, followed by an ever heavier back story to the back story.) She moved to a mountain cabin, stopped smoking, got sober, and started doing pottery.
In Bolivia, altitude sickness (at 12 thousand feet, La Paz is the world’s highest capital) and sickness with the candidate nearly drive her away. Jane’s sidekicks—played by Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, and Zoe Kazan—can’t make a dent in Castillo’s mixture of machismo, cluelessness, and the kind of self-serving patriarchal worldview that regards Bolivia’s indigenous population as a bunch of children who don’t know what’s good for them. Then Jane figures out a hook: To make Castillo more attractive than the frontrunner (a young, engaged populist who represents hope and change), she has to sell the idea that the country doesn’t need someone, well, likable. It needs a strongman who can handle a crisis.
Jane’s cynicism—she regards herself, the candidate, and everyone else as a pawn—is so over-the-top that it threatens to derail Our Brand is Crisis: Who cares about the election if she doesn’t? But the filmmakers invent an antagonist of near-mythic stature to make her lust for a win: Billy Bob Thornton’s Pat Candy, who works for the leading candidate. Thornton is sleek, clammy, and leering. He takes a room across the balcony in Jane’s hotel, where he can meet her stare, undress her with his eyes, and psych her out. When she starts giving it back to him—psyching him out—the movie gets really good.
Jane gets blasted, leaks misinformation, vandalizes Candy’s room, and sabotages his candidate’s rallies the way he sabotaged her candidate’s. It’s great fun. I love stories of politics as theater—the stagecraft, scripting, wardrobe choices, and focus group testing of absurd commercials. All the stupid tricks are here, the ones people laugh at onscreen in the context of a film like this but fall for in spite of themselves on their TVs during football games. We know this stuff happens, but it’s still clarifying to see the curtains pulled back. Although Castillo’s populist opponent doesn’t seem to have much integrity (the character does in the documentary), we still know that Castillo has less, that he’s a dreadful man. We root for Jane to win and feel guilty for caring more about the game than the country.
David Gordon Green keeps the perspectives shifting, getting lots of good angles on this three-ring circus. His slickness fits the milieu. And while the role of Calamity Jane smacks of Sandra Bullock’s branding—the smart but painfully self-conscious klutz who’s also a depressive—it’s a complicated, maybe even feminist shtick. Jane is goaded by patronizing men into proving herself in ways she’s not proud of. She comes to realize she’s better than that.
Jane’s conversion, alas, is over-broad and signaled from the start. It’s yoked to an impoverished Bolivian teenager who believes—despite the angry effusions of his brother and friends in their hillside slum—that Castillo is sincere in trying to bring about economic equality. That’s not just naive to the point of idiocy. It also sets up a Hollywood ending that all but wrecks the movie.
Here’s my idea for a Hollywood ending: People are inspired to seek out Boynton’s great documentary, which throws a spotlight on one of America’s least-known but most consequential exports. Our sophisticated political flimflam could make more inroads than the Marshall Plan.