Our Brand Is Crisis
Our Brand is Crisis is about an election but in many ways it plays out like a boxing movie told from the perspective of the trainer. The cynical, satirical edge is entirely appropriate for the world of politics in which style trumps substance and the currency of the day is deception. Victory goes not to the best candidates but to the best-run campaigns. Muck-raking is a tried-and-true tactic but it must be employed with the subtlety of a scorpion's sting (with a little mud-slinging on the side). Our Brand is Crisis isn't about the man on the stump making speeches and shaking hands. It's about the people behind the scenes whose agendas rarely align with what's in the best interests of the populace.
The place is Bolivia but the strategies and tactics are universal. For most of its running length, Our Brand is Crisis doesn't care whether candidate for President Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) is a "good man" or a "bad man." He's a figurehead. The purpose of his election team isn't to worry about whether he's the best man for the job but that, when the dust settles, he gets the most votes. They'll do just about anything to achieve this, and damn the consequences. Of course, the other side is playing just as dirty. However, the ending is disingenuous and incongruous with its sudden attack of conscience.
Loosely based on events that occurred during the real-life 2002 Bolivian election (as related in Rachel Boynton's 2005 documentary), when the James Carville's DC-based consulting firm was brought in to manage a campaign, Our Brand Is Crisis never lacks verisimilitude. When the movie opens, would-be-President Castillo is 30 points down in the polls. Retired political strategist "Calamity" Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) is pulled out of semi-seclusion to go to work resurrecting Castillo's campaign. This pits her against her long-time rival, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton). Her solution is to invent a crisis and turn her candidate's numerous negatives into selling points. The approach gains traction but Candy isn't about to give up without a fight and things in the trenches get nasty.
Jane is a fascinating character - world-weary and beaten down by past losses, she nevertheless proves her worth almost immediately with equal parts cold calculation and irreverent charm. The campaign trail is her drug of choice and it mixes well with the cigarettes she puffs and the booze she swallows. Her past relationship with Candy is shrouded in mystery. Her personal narrative paints her as the victim of a particularly heinous dirty trick but a conversation puts that in doubt. We're never sure what to make of Jane just as we're not sure what to make of an attorney defending a monstrous criminal. Is she amoral or immoral? The longer the film avoids answering the question, the more engaging it is.
Sandra Bullock has always been likeable but, for much of her career, she appeared in light fare. Even her Oscar-winning turn in The Blind Side failed to take her in new or interesting directions. That changed with Gravity, her first opportunity to break out and really act. In Our Brand is Crisis, she gets to go dark without appearing to. Bullock is effective because we find ourselves rooting for her even though we probably shouldn't be. Likewise, Billy Bob Thornton's inherent creepiness brings something unsettling to Candy even though he's probably not as unpleasant as we think. These are two good actors playing off one another as well as they play off our expectations.
Our Brand is Crisis is fiction but, when one considers the current state of American politics, there's nothing that feels exaggerated, whether it's planting a negative story about one's own candidate or tricking an opponent into quoting a Nazi. The movie is funny enough to get its share of laughs but, in its angry heart, it's a tragedy - and the saddest part is that too much of this story is true. Not factual, but true nonetheless. The ending is a misstep - an attempt to rescue the movie from the spiral of cynicism. For director David Gordon Green and screenwriter Peter Straughan, however, this tone-deaf mistake doesn't undo this compelling behind-the-scenes peek at how buffoons get elected and men of substance become political roadkill.
© James Berardinelli