Our Brand Is Crisis
An incumbent Bolivian president needs the help of a stellar American campaign manager to win reelection. But can the campaign succeed while the president is incredibly far behind in the polls, and while the manager continues to be a total head case?
As far as political dramedies go, Our Brand Is Crisis is as straight as it gets. Screenwriter Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare At Goats) pulls no punches when telling that campaign manager "Calamity" Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) has to overcome some serious personal hurdles to help her client win a second term. Straughan and director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) actually borrow the story from Rachel Boynton's 2005 documentary of the same title, which catalogs a Bolivian election to illustrate, as Premiere Magazine put it, "the Americanized marketing of international politics." There's no shortage of that in this movie, either.
We call Jane a head case for her laundry list of issues, including a drinking problem, sicknesses, a firm attitude, and a talent to doze off during important meetings. Her appearance is reserved, almost always wearing dark sunglasses and a tan coat that matches her disheveled blonde hair. But she makes up for her obvious drawbacks with raw talent; brought over from the United States, she is a political savant whose strategies have seen her clients win elections when all hope seemed lost. She expects to do the same in an even more turbulent Bolivian political climate for her newest client, incumbent Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida).
Jane, troubled but gifted, is an intriguing, if not amusing character to watch. Perhaps it won’t come as a surprise to some that George Clooney (a producer on the film with Bullock) was on Straughan's mind to play the role - and one could easily imagine Clooney playing the complex and irritable manager. When Bullock was ultimately cast instead, her seamless takeover of the role is a testament to Bullock’s talent and Clooney and co.’s flexibility in casting, further proving that girls can hang with the boys in Hollywood.
Unlike Bullock’s fiendishly talented alter ego, Castillo, as it turns out, is nothing particularly remarkable: he’s not warm, he hardly smiles, and he's stiff in a suit. But when a masked protester slams an egg into Castillo's forehead - an obvious plant by rival campaign manager and possible Jane love interest Pat Candy (a great Billy Bob Thornton) - Castillo retaliates with his fist. When Jane demands that Castillo not apologize for his actions, she also doubles down on her campaign strategy: to sell the Bolivian people on the idea that the country is in disarray, and they need the tough Castillo to roll up his sleeves and do the dirty work. The campaign brand is, officially, crisis.
Even so, the bold strategy meets its match in Pat Candy and his campaign strategy for his own client, Rivera (Louis Arcella), who currently dominates in the polls. Usurping Candy and Rivera is the reason Jane was wanted for the strategist gig to begin with. But with Jane and Candy's flirtatious history, the election will prove to be interesting in more layers for them than for their clients.
The combination of interpersonal playfulness with humorous political intrigue is where Our Brand Is Crisis draws its appeal, so it should be no surprise that Bullock and Thornton are the stars of the show. Fans of Bullock or of politically-themed drama or comedy will certainly find much to munch on, even if Straughan's screenplays lacks in innovation or originally. The film's highest achievement, however, lies in its protagonist, where Jane - flawed, but powerful - is a rare strong, female leading role.
For those less enthused about Hollywood progressiveness or political intrigue, though, the movie unfortunately offers much less. The movie seems overly concerned with Bullock and Thortnton, when the respectable performance turned in by de Almeida should also earn some recognition. The same happens with American campaign consultants Ben (Anthony Mackie) and Nell (Ann Dowd), who also shine briefly when the spotlight takes a little time away from Bullock and Thornton.
There’s other rather off traits to the movie, namely a trippy, alcohol-induced montage where Jane gets down with her campaign team. Seemingly not telegraphed, it's an abrupt shift . There are other such stranger moments, as when Jane, stricken by altitude sickness on the flight to Bolivia, stumbles into her hotel room. Dazed, she watches a fly emerge from the eye of a golden mask hanging on the bedroom wall, as if in hallucinating reflection, or to symbolize something else. An accumulation of rather peculiar scenes like these make Our Brand Is Crisis different for everyone; those that share its values and sense of humor should get a kick out of it, but a lack of wider appeal makes it a tough sell on broader audiences.
Written by Peter Straughan (screenplay) and Rachel Boynton (documentary). Directed by David Gordon Green.
Starring Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, and Anthony Mackie.