Our Brand Is Crisis (2015)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/30/15 09:49:15
On paper, "Our Brand is Crisis" sounds like a film that would seem to be right up my proverbial alley. For one thing, it deals with the contemporary political process, a subject to which I feel no small amount of fascination. (After all, one cannot fill every waking our parsing the likes of "Jem and the Holograms.") For another, it is based on a fascinating 2005 documentary of the same name that I happened to like a lot. Finally, it is the latest film from David Gordon Green, a director who can be uneven at times (he is the guy responsible for the likes of "Your Highness" and "The Sitter," after all) but who can be one of the most gifted and inventive filmmakers working today when he has the right kind of material and is firing on all creative cylinders (as was the case with such indie gems as "George Washington" and "Joe" as well as studio product like "Pineapple Express"). And yet, "Our Brand is Crisis" will almost certainly go down as one of the biggest disappointments of the season--a clumsy would-be political satire that has little that is new or novel to say and goes about its business in such a ham-fisted manner that it makes most politically-oriented "SNL" skits of late seem subtle and nuanced by comparison.In a role once scheduled to be played by George Clooney, Sandra Bullock once Jane Bodine, a once-legendary political campaign consultant/spin doctor who may or may not have suffered a nervous breakdown as the result of her job but who is now holed up in a cabin in the mountains, far away from the political scene, where she spends her days making pottery. This is where she is found by a pair of desperate campaign consultants (Anthony Mackie and Ann Dowd) who have an intriguing proposal for her regarding the presidential race in Bolivia. They are representing Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), who once ran the country until he was run out of office years earlier and who is now polling at around 8%, far behind the far more affable man-of-the-people candidate currently in the lead. None of this is of much interest to Jane--she immediately identifies the campaign as doomed from the start--but when she learns that the chief opponent has hired his own American consultant in Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), with whom she has a long and rocky professional history, she agrees to sign on even though she knows little about her candidate and even less regarding the language.
When she arrives, Jane is immediately stricken by altitude sickness and is even more nauseated when she sees the pathetic attempts that the campaign has designed to make the imperious Castillo seem warmer and more approachable. Recognizing that this approach is a non-starter, Jane hits upon the idea of using his cool and dispassionate manner as an asset. Instead of a cheerful and upbeat campaign, they will take the approach that Bolivia is a country on the brink of immediate political and economic strife and that Castillo is the only candidate strong enough to pull it out of its current crisis. Against all odds, this agenda, bolstered by a few underhanded moves here and there in the cause of the theoretical greater good, strikes a chord with voters and Castillo begins to rise in the polls. This kicks off the inevitable exchange of dirty tricks between Jane and Candy but it begins to look as if Castillo could actually pull it off. That might look good on Jane's resume but what will it mean for the people of Bolivia if she has convinced them to elect a president who may not have their best interests at heart after all?
There are many problems with "Our Brand is Crisis" but the biggest one--the one that pretty much single-handedly dooms the entire enterprise--is that this is a film that is never as smart, clever or knowledgable about any of the subjects that it deals with as it seems to think it is. For example, between the current 24-hour news cycle and its habit of overly analyzing every part of the political process, no matter how minute, and any number of films and television shows that have arrived over the years (including fictional works such as "The Candidate," "Primary Colors," "Veep," "The West Wing" and documentaries like "The War Room" and the original "Our Brand is Crisis"), most of us have already gotten a few lengthy looks at how the sausage that is a modern political campaign is created. For a movie like this to have any real impact, it needs to go deeper and get at the hidden truths that its predecessors somehow missed.
Instead, Green and screenwriter Peter Straughan have employed a disappointingly shallow take that never even tries to get below the surface. All of the political material is painted in the broadest strokes imaginable--the moral and ethical questions of trying to impose American-style campaigning into a foreign election is barely touched on while the details of the political situation in Bolivia is largely relegated to an embarrassingly sappy subplot involving a idealistic young campaign assistant whose idolization of Castillo is due for a rude awakening. None of the stuff involving the operatives rings true for a second because the screenplay requires them to act like idiots at specific times in order to keep the story moving along. Worst of all, the last half-hour takes a highly dubious turn that finds the increasingly tense political situation taking a back seat to Jane's increasing sense of guilt over what she has wrought. A good film of this sort should leave viewers with the sense that they have actually learned something while watching it--all you learn from "Our Brand is Crisis" is that George Clooney must have replaced the batteries in his crap detector after the "Tomorrowland" debacle so that he could make the sound decision to bail on this one.
I think part of the problem with the film may stem from its uncomfortable blend of fact and fiction. As mentioned before, the film is based on the documentary of the same name and some elements of it have clearly transferred over--Candy is a dead ringer for famed consultant James Carville, who was the main focus of the documentary--much of the rest has been fiddled around with in the usual ways, starting from the fact that the Jane character was wholly invented for it. The end result is the worst of both worlds--the invented stuff tends to ring false and it sort of cheapens the more realistic elements. Perhaps Green and Straughan should have just bitten the bullet and fictionalized everything right down to the country the story is being set in--what they would have lacked in verisimilitude, it might have made up for with a more fearless and biting take on the material at hand. As it stand now, the Woody Allen farce "Bananas" contains a more lucid critique of American meddling of Latin American politics than this film.Between the sour satire, the cringe-inducing attempts at sentiment and the phoned-in performances from all the key players (Thornton is almost literally playing the same character that he did in the markedly better "Primary Colors"), "Our Brand is Crisis" is one dead bulb of a movie that will come across as absurdly simplistic to anyone with a working interest in politics and a total bore for anyone else. For David Gordon Green, I guess he should be commended for getting a film with any form of political content through the major studio machinery but this will not go down as one of his great efforts. The one bright side to all of this was the decision to retain the title of the documentary for this version--perhaps that way, people trying to rent this version at some point down the line will accidentally chose the earlier one and wind up with a far better and more edifying film for their money.
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