Our Brand is Crisis is a solid entertainment even though its political satire offers nothing new and its political activism is only surface-level. Yeah, I know, call in the faint praise police. But in reality, the film is a comedy, which means it can succeed on wit and tone even if it doesn’t cut as deep as it might like to.
There is an inherent war going on within the film, between comedic tendencies and impassioned political ones. It’s based on a 2005 documentary by Rachel Boynton that explored the consequences of employing extreme American political campaign tactics in foreign countries, where the system hasn’t become appropriately jaded and where the fallout is much more severe. There are certainly strands of that theme going on in this now-fictionalized story of an American political operative called in to revive the campaign of a flailing Bolivian presidential candidate, though in narrative form the would-be incisive satire becomes uneasily blended with character study, screwball comedy, and forced moralizing. As a result, the serious narrative strands tend to scratch the surface of the political machinery we all now know inside and out, but the comedy hits dead-on, consistently, and keeps the film afloat.
Sandra Bullock plays the campaign expert, “Calamity” Jane Bodine, infamous for her cutthroat campaign tactics and indomitable win-at-all-costs mindset, but also for going overboard and taking chances that end up not only losing elections, but hurting people involved in those elections. Having suffering a series of brutal defeats, Jane has gone into quiet seclusion, but she’s pulled back into the game to assist with the fledging campaign of Bolivian presidential candidate Juan Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), who is trailing by 28 points with Election Day only a few weeks away. Jane doesn’t see much hope in Castillo’s fumbled candidacy, especially since he is up against a more populist opponent whose campaign happens to be run by Jane’s rival, the smirking, bald-headed Pat Candy (a Carville-ian Billy Bob Thornton). But she sees an opportunity to infect the collective mindset of the electorate by abandoning hopeful, positive messaging and embracing the politics of negativity and fear. The film’s title refers to the new Castillo campaign strategy – planting seeds of pending doom in the minds of voters and pitting Castillo as the man who can (literally) roll up his sleeves and work to dig Bolivia out of this state of crisis.
Perhaps this would be a transparent approach in the U.S., where mud-slinging is as integral a part of the political system as eating pancakes in Iowa. But in South America it’s a startling change of pace, and the onslaught of fear-mongering and candidate sabotage does impact the polls, turning what seemed like a forgone conclusion into a competitive race. Of course, this tactic carries with it plenty of false character representations and empty promises, but for a dyed-in-the-wool cynic like Jane, that’s minor collateral damage for a job otherwise well done. Besides, the collective well being of the Bolivian people isn’t her primary – or even secondary – goal. The secondary goal is getting Castillo elected; the primary goal is finally toppling her longtime foe.
It’s an intriguing character study, made all the more compelling by Bullock, who is an absolute dynamo of spitfire negative energy. It may well be her best performance ever – yes, even better than her Oscar-winning role in The Blind Side. Her sharp-edged presence drives the film’s humor, which drifts from pointed to silly to occasionally random, but somehow develops its own quirky rhythm. That’s likely thanks to director David Gordon Green, whose filmography consists of both meditative indie dramas and offbeat goofball comedies, a duality that ends up working ideally for this material, which calls for a teetering balance of both.
With so much working in its favor, it’s unfortunate that Our Brand is Crisis fumbles its attempt to expose the dark underbelly of American political tactics, which is hardly necessary since said underbelly has already been laid bare – in more detail, with more nuance – in countless other films. Also, once it starts down its path of cynicism and ennui, the film doesn’t seem sure where it’s going. Peter Straughan’s screenplay concludes with a rushed note of redemptive inspiration that was never established or previously explored, attempting to end with a deep impact that isn’t earned. Still, along the way, the film is entertaining, funny, occasionally sharp, and Bullock is as good as she’s ever been. Sort of like the Castillo candidacy, it succeeds in spite of itself.