Sandra shines in a flawed Bolivian politics flick

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


Our Brand Is Crisis
3 out of 5

The persona of bitterness and disenchantment Sandra Bullock has developed in the last few years serves her well in the political satire Our Brand Is Crisis. Based on the 2005 documentary of the same name, the film takes several dramatic liberties (Bullock’s character was originally male and to be played by George Clooney, for example), but it remains a bleak depiction of political manipulation at its most naked.

Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) is a disgraced campaign strategist barely hanging onto her sanity. Both disposable and expendable, Bodine has no choice but to accept a job as head consultant for a presidential candidate in Bolivia. The election is a particularly important one for the deeply indebted country; the International Monetary Fund wants to call in its debts — at the expense of Bolivia’s social programs and natural resources.

The politician Bodine’s tasked with helping doesn’t make her job any easier — Pedro Castillo (no relation to me, heh) doesn’t even register on the charisma-meter, and is trailing in the polls by a considerable margin. Jane considers throwing in the towel until realizing the frontrunner’s campaign manager is her arch-enemy Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, channeling James Carville), the guy who triggered her nervous breakdown years ago. Suddenly, this is personal.

Jane soon discovers that pride brings out the fighter in Castillo, who may not be the most appealing candidate, but he’ll throw a punch if he’s prodded. As for the message to be found here, it’s a Hollywood classic: Crisis!!! If voters don’t pick Castillo there’ll be doom all around! (Everybody conveniently forgets that to really know what a politician wants you have to follow the money, but oh well.)

Directed by perennial up-and-comer David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express), Our Brand Is Crisis does a very good job at skimming the surface of presidential campaigns. Kissing babies doesn’t work anymore; contenders must appeal to the electorate’s fears and most basic emotions. (Sound familiar, Canadians?)

The problem with Our Brand Is Crisis is that it doesn’t dare go far enough down the rabbit hole. Outside of a campaign based on fear, “going negative” and candidate-coaching, there’s nothing here that even mildly well-informed people don’t know. It also doesn’t bother to tackle Bolivia’s biggest political issue: Candidates live and die on promising access to the Pacific Ocean, and demonizing Chile. None of this is in the film.

The movie works better as a character study. Bullock’s Bodine is disgustingly good at her job, even though her methods are questionable and her scorn for people with ideals and principles is palpable. Eventually, it becomes clear Jane’s cynicism comes from an old emotional wound, which prevents us from entirely hating her.

What really hinders Our Brand Is Crisis is the saccharine ending, which is sadly inconsistent with the tone of rest of the movie and feels more studio-ordered than organic. For a Hollywood-ending-free experience, check out Rachel Boynton’s documentary of the same name. It’s both horrifying and coherent.