Our Brand Is Crisis is a super-duper, heavily fictionalized account of the 2002 election in Bolivia. A documentary of the same name was released in 2005, chronicling the unusual story of how right-wing Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada recruited James Carville’s outfit to run his campaign with American-style marketing tactics, and ultimately beat socialist candidate Evo Morales for the presidency. In the new film, all the major players have been changed, I don’t know how closely the story follows the ups and downs of the documentary. The aftermath of the election is different than what happened in real life, though of a similar nature. The new film is so different, in fact, that retaining the name of the documentary is more confusing than anything else. If you’re going to fictionalize, just go all the way.
Our Brand Is Crisis opens on “Calamity” Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock), an infamous campaign strategist, now hold up in a mountain cabin making pottery. Two Americans working for a campaign in Bolivia, Nell (Ann Dowd) and Ben (Anthony Mackie), arrive at Jane’s door, asking for her help. Their candidate, Pedro Castillo (played by Joaquim de Almeida, standing in for the real-life Lozada), is well behind his main opponent, Victor Rivera (played by Louis Arcella, standing in for Morales), in the polls. They need Jane’s expertise to get their man back on top.
At first, they try to appeal to Jane on principle: Castillo is a standup businessman, and just what the war-torn and fractured South American country needs. Castillo is just a populist and an opportunist. It’s interesting how “populism” and “opportunism” always get lumped together, as if it’s inherently unsportsmanlike to actually give a damn about the people. But that doesn’t do the trick, so Nell tries a different tack: Jane’s old arch-rival, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), is running Rivera’s operation. That does it, and Jane is off to Bolivia.
Once there, she discovers a disorganized wreck of a campaign, headed by the overwrought Buckley (Scoot McNairy). Battling altitude sickness, she befriends Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheo) – the campaign’s most earnest and eager worker – and brings in the deceptively-young LeBlanc (Zoe Kazan) for opposition research. Once Jane’s old neurons start firing, and she spots a path for Castillo to victory – “our brand is crisis” she declares, because even though Castillo is an asshole, people gravitate to assholes in crisis – Bullock steps to the fore of every scene, and you can believe this woman was a legend in her old career.
The script by Peter Straughan takes its time in these early scenes and goes for sly chuckles rather than broad humor. Director David Gordon Green has helmed several comedies, but he plays it relatively straight here, only breaking out the absurdism on two occasions: once, when Castillo’s campaign bus overtakes Rivera’s, and Jane’s baser instincts emerge. The other, when Jane gets drunk with Edde and his buddies and convinces them to help her launch food projectiles at Pat’s hotel window.
There’s also a tone of seriousness running under the proceedings. Jane has some dark secret, and Pat needles her with a Mephistophelean glee, eager to see her abandon whatever remaining compunctions she feels about their mutually amoral tactics. Jane is a solid protagonist, but her rivalry with Pat isn’t super compelling. So much of what drives Our Brand Is Crisis is a sense of empty space yet to be filled by possibility: something is coming, we’re just not sure what. And slowly, drop by drop, Green and Straughan fill that space with the question of who — Castillo or Rivera — is actually right for Bolivia.
The characters themselves avoid asking this question. These are campaign strategists, and they intuit that they’ll do their jobs better if they never inquire whether the narratives they’ve constructed for their candidates actually match reality. Yet reality slowly intrudes. Eddie’s buddies are leftwing supporters of Rivera, and are convinced that Castillo will allow Bolivia’s economy to be looted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). At one point, Castillo’s campaign bus is stopped by a group of Bolivia’s indigenous natives, who demand the candidate hold a national referendum before bringing the IMF in. Then, during a stressful and unguarded moment of debate prep, Castillo reacts with contempt to the idea of giving the natives full political and civil rights. And in the film’s darkest and most revealing scene, Castillo tells Eddie the people of Bolivia are ignorant children in need of a “stern father.”
I came into the film not knowing what happened in the actual 2002 campaign, and if you don’t know either I’d recommend keeping it that way until after you see the movie.
Our Brand Is Crisis is not super deep, nor is it amazing as cinema. But to its credit it stays within the bounds of what it can realistically achieve, thematically and narratively, and anchors its story in the personal and the immediate. I appreciated Green’s low-key-but-competent command of the story, and Bullock’s confident, rich performance. The final scenes, which reveal the deepest parts of Jane’s character, are pulled off almost entirely without any dialogue on Bullock’s part. Green uses a talking-head interview as a framing device to bookend the story, and you’ll want to pay attention to the text introducing the interview subject at the end — it might be the most moving thing in the film.