Hard Sell

Film-Lead-GT1544Advertising invades politics in uneven ‘Our Brand Is Crisis’

In politics, as in so many other aspects of modern culture, it’s all about salesmanship. Questions of governance, leadership and morality are all trampled underfoot in the rush to sell a bill of goods to the voting public. Everything hinges on perceived (not actual) value, or villainy, but the difference between voting for a politician, and, say, buying a car, is that the stakes are so much higher; the consequences can be global, if the politician is powerful enough.

This ought to be obvious, but it seems to be a surprise to the characters in Our Brand Is Crisis, a fact-based drama about American advertising geniuses-for-hire meddling in international politics. Directed by David Gordon Green, from a script by Peter Straughan, it’s reminiscent of a movie from a few decades back, Under Fire, in which wisecracking American journalists gradually become radicalized by events they’re reporting on in South America. But Crisis is more problematic in that its jaded protagonists, campaign veterans imported from the States to work for opposing presidential candidates in Bolivia, are orchestrating events themselves, according to their own agendas. Consequences be damned; it’s all about the win.

Sandra Bullock stars as the fictional “Calamity” Jane Bodine, once a hotshot campaign strategist whose take-no-prisoners methods led to her professional ruin and bouts of depression. She’s retired to a mountain retreat to make pottery and lick her wounds until she’s lured back into the fray by former colleague, Nell (Ann Dowd), and her cohort, Ben (Anthony Mackie), who have been hired for mucho dinero by a Bolivian presidential candidate. Jane doesn’t care about the money, but she can’t resist one more chance to duke it out with her nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), campaign manager for an opposing candidate who’s the front-runner.

Jane is both lethargic and buffoony at first, stumbling down the ramp from the plane like Chevy Chase doing Gerald Ford, sucking oxygen from a tank, and throwing up in wastebaskets because of the altitude. Worse, she glumly tells Nell that their candidate, slick businessman Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), disliked and mistrusted by the people, is “not a winner.” But after an encounter with silky sidewinder Candy, she’s suddenly energized, and comes on like Don Draper with a brilliant strategy: if Castillo can’t be lovable, they’ll sell the buzzword “crisis.” Bolivia is in crisis, and Castillo is the tough guy to solve it.

But as more unsavory details of Castillo’s personal and political lives become apparent, we start to wonder: if this guy is such a jerk, why are these people working for him? Because he’s paying them, of course, and the movie wants you to feel the soullessness of that rationale. (There’s a reason we see Jane reading “Faust” in one scene.) But there is no corresponding character to root for, no one whose soul seems to be in jeopardy. They’re all political hacks, especially Jane. That she’s both tough and fragile doesn’t make us care any more about her. There’s nothing of herself that seems to be at risk.

Interesting that while Thornton’s character has the shaved head and Southern-fried demeanor of real-life political consultant James Carville (whose misadventures in the 2002 Bolivian presidential campaign inspired the 2005 documentary also called Our Brand Is Crisis, which inspired this film), it’s Jane who’s the surrogate Carville figure. (The part was originally written for a man.) And while the film’s closing scenes make dramatic sense as a last grasp for redemption, it all rings a bit hollow, since there’s no evidence that any of the actual participants ever experienced such an epiphany.

Of course, these are fictional characters (including the presidential candidates, given pseudonyms here, for obvious reasons), so the filmmakers can do whatever they like with them. But the idealized finale never quite pulls the movie out of its nosedive into blatant (and finally mundane) amorality. Waffling between satire, drama and slapstick (like a supremely stupid scene where two campaign buses drag race along a steep cliffside road), Crisis never quite finds a consistent tone. And Jane is too remote for too long to function as a satisfying heroine.


**1/2 (out of four)

With Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, and Anthony Mackie. Written by Peter Straughan. Directed by David Gordon Green.  A Warner Bros. release. Rated R. 107 minutes.

OPPOSING FORCES Billy Bob Thornton and Sandra Bullock play campaign managers for opposing Bolivian presidential candidates in David Gordon Green’s ‘Our Brand Is Crisis.’

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