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Our Brand Is Crisis

D: David Gordon Green / 107m

Cast: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Joaquim de Almeida, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, Zoe Kazan, Dominic Flores, Reynaldo Pacheco, Louis Arcello, Octavio Gómez Berríos, Luis Chávez

When a Bolivian politician, Pedro Castillo (de Almeida), hires an American political consulting firm to help him win the upcoming Presidential elections, they’re unprepared for how unpopular he is with the Bolivian people, and how uncharismatic he is. With their candidate adrift in the polls by twenty-eight points, the consultants, led by Ben (Mackie), bring in “Calamity” Jane Bodine (so called because of the way in which she’s mishandled the last four electoral campaigns she’s overseen). Arriving in Bolivia, Jane is initially laid low by altitude sickness, and takes a few days to find her feet. During this time, the other consultants do their best to make Castillo more voter friendly, but nothing seems to work.

Castillo’s main rival is a plain-speaking man of the people called Rivera (Arcello). His campaign is being run by Jane’s nemesis, Pat Candy (Thornton), a man who – like Jane – isn’t averse to lying and cheating to getting the job done. When he orchestrates a physical assault on Castillo, Jane sees the answer to the campaign’s problems in Castillo’s response – he knocks his assailant to the ground – and at once she regains her old flair for electoral battle. She quickly energises the consulting team (and against their better judgment on occasion), and impresses on them that the message should be that Castillo doesn’t have time for silly publicity stunts; he’s too busy trying to get elected so that he can save the country from the crisis it finds itself in right then.

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This approach begins to work, and Castillo makes up some ground in the polls, but there’s a problem: it won’t be enough. Jane advocates starting a negative campaign, looking for dirt on Rivera, anything that will put him in a bad light. But Castillo is resistant to the idea, and refuses to do it. Behind his back, Jane has some flyers printed that make it seem Rivera has launched his own negative campaign. Castillo relents, and Jane digs deep into Rivera’s background, uncovering a public funding fraud related to the purchase of some cars. It proves to be the first salvo in a battle between Jane and Candy that in time, changes the whole complexion of the campaign, and gives Castillo a fighting chance of winning the election.

For anyone watching Our Brand Is Crisis who finds themselves suffering an attack of déjà vu, it will be because this story has been covered before (with the real people concerned) in the 2005 documentary of the same name. Covering the 2002 Bolivian Presidential elections, and the involvement of US consulting firm Greenberg Carville Shrum, Rachel Boynton’s timely examination of political campaign tactics was both illuminating and worrying in equal measure. Arriving ten years on, and without the benefit of those elections to give it some much-needed context, Our Brand Is Crisis feels out-of-sorts with itself from the moment it touches down in Bolivia and tries to develop its comedy credentials by having Jane look ill and barf into a wastebasket.

It’s at this point that anyone expecting a political satire will begin to suspect they’re going to be disappointed. And so it proves, with the movie’s comic highlight involving the sad demise of a llama (so not really much of a highlight). Elsewhere there’s a nervy, whingy performance from McNairy that is meant to provide further humour but looks and sounds out of place, and the kind of uncomfortable banter between Jane and Candy that in any other workplace would have seen him fired for sexual harrassment. It’s hard to see why such obvious attempts at comedy were included in the movie, as all they do is interrupt the more carefully orchestrated drama, and detract from the somewhat clumsy message the movie is promoting (basically, never trust a politician or the people who work for him/her).

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That said, the movie does get its point across quite succinctly at times. Castillo has a quiet exchange on the campaign bus with a naïve young supporter called Eduardo (Pacheco) in which he spells out exactly what’s going to happen if he’s elected, and by inference, what it will mean for Bolivia. It’s played with due restraint by the two actors and is the movie’s most plainly shot scene, a simple two-hander (with cutaways to Jane) that also shows just how good the movie could have been if the effects of political expediency had been shown rather than the lengths that some consulting teams will go to to maintain that expediency. And in its own deceptive way it illustrates clearly the difference between a campaign promise and an elected imperative.

Again, it’s the political dirty tricks that become the focus, from the revelation that Castillo had an affair (and which Peter Straughan’s script never manages to make as devastating as it’s meant to be), to the ridiculous notion that Rivera has Nazi sympathies. The game of political oneupmanship between Jane and Candy is also one of the movie’s less convincing sleight of hands, while the impromptu visit by Jane to Eduardo’s home (and which leads to her getting drunk and arrested) merely adds to the notion that the script hasn’t decided what it wants to be: searing political drama, raucous comedy, or mocking satire. In the end it’s none of these. Instead it’s a messy political exposé that fails to tell us anything new about either South American politics or the grubby tactics used by US consulting firms to ensure their candidate’s success.

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It does, however, have one great redeeming feature: Sandra Bullock. In a movie that tries too hard and spreads itself too thin (and often in the same scene), Bullock is the through line that the audience can connect and stay with. Beneath her seen-it-all-with-warts-on demeanour and lack of shame at some of the things she devises, Jane is a memorable character made all the more memorable for Bullock’s portrayal of her as a media-savvy manipulator with hidden reserves of compassion. There’s a scene at the end that, in the hands of some actresses, would have appeared maudlin and unconvincing. But Bullock nails it with a dazed expression and eyes full of fear for what she’s done. It’s the movie’s strongest, most affecting moment; it’s just a shame that it comes so late in the day.

Developed by George Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov, Our Brand Is Crisis was originally meant to be directed by and star Clooney, but as time – and the movie’s development – rolled on, his intended participation dwindled to that of producer. Seeing the movie now this seems like a wise move on his part. Even though Green is a clever, often mercurial director, he’s defeated here by the hit-and-largely-miss script, and as a result he never finds a consistent tone that the movie can adhere to. Away from Bullock, the rest of the cast provide serviceable performances (thanks to some cruelly underdeveloped characters), with only de Almeida showing what can be done with the briefest of outlines. And Thornton, drafted in to give one of his patented Machiavellian opponent roles, does just that – and nothing more.

Rating: 5/10 – an undemanding look at how political campaigns can be manipulated toward a desired outcome, Our Brand Is Crisis lacks dramatic focus and a clear approach to the material; saved by Bullock’s performance, the movie nevertheless struggles to fly when she’s not on screen, and ends up as disappointing as the electoral outcome.