The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

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Warner Brothers
 107 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: David Gordon Green 
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton
Our Brand Is Crisis

Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Today’s election campaigns often resemble pitches for coffee or detergent as sophisticated marketing firms try to manipulate what they hope are easily gulled voters into supporting their candidates for the flimsiest of reasons, or in some cases, purely invented reasons. This subject is ripe for cinematic treatment, either as a documentary or a dramatic movie. Our Brand Is Crisis is a fictionalized version of the 2002 Bolivian presidential campaign that was the subject of an acclaimed documentary of the same name. Thanks to a misfired branding effort of its own, though, the fictional Crisis is about as effective as Walter Mondale’s 1984 campaign was.


In 2002, former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada barely won a second term in a crowded field. Sanchez de Lozada’s term lasted little more than a year however, before he resigned in the wake of bloody nationwide protests against his regime’s policies. What made this election memorable was the active participation of James Carville’s marketing firm in Sanchez de Lozada’s campaign. The documentary version of Crisis was widely acclaimed but seldom seen.


Come 2015 and, as the United States prepares for what promises to be a bitterly divisive presidential campaign of its own, director David Gordon Green and screenwriter Peter Straughan felt that Our Brand Is Crisis was ripe for a wider audience. And, rather than dramatize the 2002 election, they decided to update it to the far more social-media-savvy world of today. Further, rather than structure the movie as a drama, they turn Crisis into a black comic political satire, also probably another wise move. But they then throw their movie into the creative and box office trashcan with a horrible casting decision.


Just as in real life, the campaign of fictional Bolivian candidate Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), a right winger widely perceived as being in the pocket of multinational economic interests, is in trouble. He’s a poor candidate whose first administration was widely disliked and is struggling mightily in the polls. In desperation, his campaign consultants (Ann Dowd and Anthony Mackie) turn to “Calamity” Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock), a legendary political strategist whose last campaign ended disastrously for her candidate. Since then, Jane has been in seclusion, but she agrees to go to Bolivia.


At first, Jane isn’t much help as she struggles with the altitude (over 10,000 feet high in most of Bolivia) and her own substance predilections. But when she sees Castillo punch out a heckler at a campaign event, Jane decides on a new strategy. Gone are the attempts to make Castillo warm and cuddly; instead, Jane and her staff decide to emphasize the fact that Bolivia is in a crisis, and try to hammer home the point that only a strong leader can deal effectively with that crisis. And, when Jane learns that her old nemesis and rival consultant Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton) has joined the team of Castillo’s lead rival, she gets her old mojo back and starts taking Candy on, dirty trick for dirty trick.


In response to Candy’s presence, Jane unleashes a swarm of dirty tricks, most notably her efforts to portray Castillo’s lead rival as corrupt and an incident (based on one that actually occurred in the real election) in which the U.S. State Department releases information that winds up boosting the campaign of a third candidate at the expense of the front runner. Even for audiences familiar with the usual brand of American political double dealing, some of this will probably be new, and almost all of it is repackaged cleverly.


At its best, in its middle third, Our Brand Is Crisis resembles the old Spy vs. Spy comics in Mad magazine, in which the spy in white and the one in black did endless battle with mixed success. Since the spies never spoke or indicated their political allegiances in any way, each duel of wits was pure strategy relieved of ideology. The script of Crisis paints Pat Candy in the same way. He’s no ideologue, and he has no backstory; he’s just a hired gun doing what he does best, one who might easily have thrown in with the opposition had they approached him first. Needless to say, the fact that Billy Bob Thornton’s shaved head and sunglasses make him look a lot like James Carville is no coincidence.


What keeps Our Brand Is Crisis from being exceptional satire isn’t Thornton’s wickedly on point performance. No, it’s the leading lady, Sandra Bullock. Bullock has invariably played variations on the same character, a sometimes screwed up and klutzy career woman whose heart is nonetheless always in the right place and who inevitably comes to her senses. To make that point, Peter Straughan’s script has her battle the personal demons in her past in the form of decisions she now regrets. The problem is that Jane Bodine simply can’t be a typical Sandra Bullock character and be effective in this movie.


That’s not to say that Bullock’s cute shtick couldn’t be effective in a film like this had it been used as a tool, much the same as Peter Falk’s Columbo used his apparent clumsiness. There are moments when Jane uses her klutziness and charm to her advantage, disarming her opponents before sticking the dagger in, but the script invariably holds back when it needs her to be at her most ruthless. Nicole Kidman or Kate Winslet (or even Reese Witherspoon as a grown up Tracy Flick) would have killed in this role. Instead, Bullock emerges as even more confused as the film goes on.


Some of the other characterizations in the movie seem equally off. Joaquim de Almeida invariably plays drug lord types, and he’s perfect in the role of a strongman, but the various members of Bodine’s support team seem woefully naïve and ill-informed for their jobs. They seem to be first year political science students rather than seasoned operatives. Part of this dimwittedness is a script device that allows Bullock to explain her strategies in detail for the audience, but it’s still sloppy writing.


The actual Bolivian election resulted in disaster for the country but did nothing to change the tenor of election campaigns in the United States or anywhere else in the world. Green and Straughan did not want viewers to leave the theater on such a downbeat note, so they invented an ending that, while it foreshadows the actual riots that occurred, tries to find a ray of hope. Sadly, it’s one of the most unintentionally laughable moments in the entire script, a completely ridiculous Kumbaya epiphany.


For a movie about marketing, Our Brand Is Crisis proves remarkably clueless about its subject. The relentless attempts to market “brand Sandra Bullock” badly damage the movie and do little to help the star’s reputation. Instead, Bullock’s efforts in Crisis seem particularly feeble and desperate. There’s a lot of good material in Our Brand Is Crisis and some genuinely scathing humor. In the end, however, most viewers will probably brand it a dismal failure.

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Our Brand Is Crisis (2015) on IMDb