Movie Review: “Our Brand is Crisis”

Starring
Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thorton, Anthony Mackie, Joaquim de Almeida, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, Zoe Kazan
Director
David Gordon Green

With the 2016 U.S. presidential election already garnering plenty of media attention, the timing couldn’t be more perfect for a film like “Our Brand is Crisis” to remind everyone that politics is just a big sham. Loosely based on Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same name (which detailed the marketing tactics employed by a team of American consultants led by Clinton campaign strategist James Carville in the 2002 Bolivian presidential election), the movie delivers a watered-down version of those events that audaciously tries to get the audience to identify with its morally corrupt protagonist. The fact that she’s portrayed by America’s sweetheart, Sandra Bullock, is a genius piece of casting, because the actress could play Hitler’s mother and still come across somewhat likable, but it doesn’t mask the film’s tonal inconsistencies and lack of direction.

Bullock stars as “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a disgraced campaign strategist who’s been out of the political game for six years after a string of losses credited to her self-destructive behavior. But when Bolivian presidential candidate Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) hires an elite American management team to run his campaign, only to find themselves 28 points behind in the polls with 90 days to go, Jane is approached in a last-ditch attempt to turn the ship around. It’s apparent to Jane within minutes of meeting Castillo that he’s a lost cause, but despite the seemingly impossible odds of closing the gap on populist candidate Victor Rivera (Louis Arcella), she agrees to take the job after discovering that the competition has hired its own American strategist, longtime rival Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), who’s beaten her in every previous contest. For Jane, this is personal, and though Castillo’s Bolivian consultants strongly advise against running a negative campaign – they just don’t do that in their country – she convinces him that playing dirty is his only chance of winning.

Much like the campaign team hired by Castillo in the movie, “Our Brand is Crisis” boasts a talented ensemble cast that isn’t given very much to work with, squandering the talents of Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy and Zoe Kazan in marginal roles. Even Bullock’s character is pretty one-dimensional, although at least she has the benefit of sharing the screen with Thornton’s reptilian sleazeball, who is hands-down the highlight of the film. Thornton excels at playing the self-righteous asshole, and the ensuing tête-à-têtes between him and Bullock as their characters attempt to outsmart each other results in some entertaining sequences of political puppetry. Unfortunately, even during those moments, Peter Straughan’s script is never as smart as it pretends to be, particularly in a scene towards the end of the movie where Jane tricks Pat into misusing a quote that someone with his apparent education simply wouldn’t fall for.

“Our Brand is Crisis” isn’t a complete disappointment, but it lacks the personality of director David Gordon Green’s other films. Though Green has spent the past decade bouncing back and forth between serious indie dramas and goofy studio comedies, each project has always been driven by his unique sensibilities as a filmmaker. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, however, because it feels more like a paycheck movie than something he was actually passionate about making, and it shows in the final product. There’s a complacency to the storytelling that prevents the film from ever moving outside its comfort zone when that’s exactly what a movie like this should be doing.

For instance, the characters never once stop to consider whether either candidate is actually any good for Bolivia, and while that may be the point that Straughan and Gordon are trying to make about this kind of cutthroat, turn-and-burn political strategists, it also makes it incredibly difficult to care about who wins. For a movie about selling lies through a carefully crafted message, “Our Brand is Crisis” doesn’t seem to know what its own message is. While it could have been a biting satire about U.S. politics and our insistence on forcing American culture on other countries, it takes the easy Hollywood route instead; one more concerned about Jane’s contrived journey to redemption than the millions of people being affected by her actions.

  

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