Midway through Our Brand Is Crisis, political strategist Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock), stationed in Bolivia to help with a presidential election, throws away years of sobriety and gets drunk in order to celebrate a minor campaign victory. That revelry, full of shots, weed and puffs from an Oxygen tank, soon leads to copious hotel room service and using a bra to slingshot crap at the window of the room of her rival, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton). An interlude of go-for-broke goofiness, it’s the one moment in the film that actually feels like the former work of its director, Pineapple Express and Your Highness director David Gordon Green. It’s also, ultimately, the only passage during which this wishy-washy political satire doesn’t bog down in bland humor or have-it-both-ways moralizing.
Fictionalizing Rachel Boynton’s acclaimed 2005 documentary of the same name (the credits say it’s “suggested” by that non-fiction predecessor), Our Brand of Crisis situates itself in present-day Bolivia, where presidential candidate Rivera (Louis Arcella) is winning in the polls thanks to his grassroots appeal to the country’s indigenous majority. As a famed consultant, dubbed “Calamity Jane” for her notorious public missteps, Jane is enlisted by Ben (Anthony Mackie) and Nell (Ann Dowd) to help revitalize the flagging campaign of Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), a man who held the country’s highest seat fifteen years earlier – and presided over some ill-defined massacre of innocents. Castillo now hopelessly trails Rivera because he’s viewed as a corporate lackey in thrall to big business and the IMF.
Written by Peter Straughan, Our Brand Is Crisis sets its comedic tone early, when Jane arrives in the country and finds herself beset by altitude sickness that causes her to puke in a garbage can during her first meeting with Castillo, and subsequently carry around a bag of chips to help stave off nausea. Like those early bits, most of the film’s gags are flat and lifeless, lowlighted by a scene in which a llama procured for one of Castillo’s TV commercials abruptly runs out into the street and is run over by a passing car. Far better are the barbs tossed between Jane and her lifelong professional rival Candy, who’s running Rivera’s operation, and who speaks in that low, southern-twangy Thornton voice that allows caustic insults and threats to emerge, like molasses, from seemingly cordial conversation. When Thornton refers to his “Mephistophelean ways,” the commingling of menace and self-deprecating absurdity is just about perfect.
If only the rest of the film were as tonally assured. Our Brand Is Crisis spends most of its time detailing Jane’s anything-to-win tactics, which involve distributing negative flyers attributed to Rivera as well as starting a rumor (based on a single fuzzy photo) that Rivera once knew—and (who knows?) maybe even hung out with!—Nazis. The foundational idea is that Jane, like Candy, is a gun for hire who only cares about winning, not about what such triumph might actually mean for the country whose election she’s manipulating. Political consultancy is presented as a game in which crafting compelling narratives that benefit one’s candidate is more important than the truth. A sobering notion, sure, but one that, however accurate, is conclusively dramatized less than a third of the way through the story, and then repeated, over and over, to diminishing effect.
Sandwiched between Castillo, a shady member of the power-hungry elite whose untrustworthiness is obvious from the get-go, and Eddy (Reynaldo Pacheco), a naïve true-believer member of Castillo’s campaign whose clichéd disillusionment is preordained, Jane can’t help but come across as relatively nuanced. Yet between the film ignoring her relapse (alcoholism isn’t that bad after all?) to it turning her into a laughable figure of noble morality, Jane is so phony that Bullock is left to carry the proceedings through sheer megastar magnetism. That she often succeeds in this endeavor is a testament to her charisma, as well as to her ability to lace Jane’s bluster and contempt with self-doubt and fear. Her gung-ho turn helps compensate for the preponderance of nonsense that piles up as the tale races to its ballot-casting finish.
Alas, Bullock’s spirited performance isn’t nearly enough. By concluding in a fashion that asks viewers to both root for Jane’s victory, and then to root for her rejection of that victory, Our Brand Is Crisis tries to have its cake and eat it too. It’s a tact so disingenuous that it makes its earlier, more believable across-the-board cynicism come across as merely a put-on. Jane’s crisis may be of both a political and conscience sort, but the real calamity is the film’s election of uplifting liberal-working-class fantasy over a truly damning indictment of the amorality coursing through current geopolitics.
Director: David Gordon Green
Writer: Peter Straughan
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazan, Joaquim de Almeida, Louis Arcella
Release Date: October 30, 2015