There is something deeply disturbing about American political strategists helping an unpopular politician return back to presidency in a country as different as Bolivia. That was the idea behind the 2005 documentary by the same name that followed an American political consultancy firm, including James Carville of Bill Clinton fame, which did the job in 2002. If Our Brand Is Crisis recognises that irony, it doesn’t show.
It’s hard to see what exactly informs this strange mix of satire/political vehicle that only manages to engage due to Sandra Bullock’s proficient turn. Apparently Bullock’s Jane Bodine has retired due to some financial mismanagement, which is never brought up again. Apparently she has no respect for politics or politicians but hates a rival, Pat Candy (Thornton),enough to risk altitude sickness to fly down to La Paz to help her Bolivian client. She explains her being in the business as “staying away from the crowds” and not “getting her hands dirty” – try making the connection. Apparently her politician client, Castillo (Almeida), considered an elite with no real connect to the country, thinks little of hiring only Americans for his campaign. Apparently die-hard Bolivian patriots are the only ones who see the real side of Jane, which – what would you know – is just crying out to be discovered.
When the film is on surer ground, it is on a roll. Like when the scene of eggs being cracked on Castillo’s head by a member of the crowd jolts Jane into action. Weather-beaten till then, she storms into Castillo’s campaign headquarters and declares that he won’t apologise for punching that guy back, as he isn’t the apologising kind. It’s then that she gives the logo of Castillo’s campaign: when the other guy is talking hope (“the most powerful brand”), you can only counter with fear. Tell the people the country is facing grave problems, and you are the only one with the experience and the strength to make it alright. “Our brand is crisis,” she announces.
It’s a powerful supposition, buttressed by Jane’s string of quotable quotes from important people. Bullock and Thornton (as the consultant of Castillo’s rival) also joust well, hinting at a lot of unfinished business. However, having set that line of realpolitik versus idealism, the film treads uncertainly, seeking to play both to the head and the heart.
While the film is heart-warmingly centered on Bullock, in a role originally written with producer George Clooney in mind – and she is at her best neurotic, desperate, redeemable self – Almeida too impresses with his restrained performance as a powerful man forced to act against his natural instincts to win the election.
The conflict between hope and fear in an election is an interesting theme for our times, where campaigns across the world are being waged on these issues. Justin Trudeau battled and won with the first in Canada, while Donald Trump is proving the power of second just across the border. However, the film fails to make little of this, reducing it to just lines before an ending that seems to rather come straight out of Clooney’s liberal and vocal world view, that is resoundingly political even when denouncing politics as all bad.
Still, howsoever the film itself may fare, Bolivia has done far better. The hardnosed politician who won in 2002, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (the inspiration for Castillo), was thrown out soon after. His rival, the socialist Eva Morales, is now in his third term into office. In that time, experts commend, Bolivia has become “one of the few countries that has reduced inequality”.
Star cast: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Joaquim de Almeida, Ann Dowd
Director: David Gordon Green