With our own elections dragging on for longer each cycle, audiences might wonder why they would want to see a movie about a presidential campaign in a Central American country, run by American strategists. Our Brand Is Crisis offers many of the frustrating tactics that we have come to expect and cringe at in our own elections, with a side of comedy and some moderately thrilling antics. In its attempt at critiquing the system, the movie has mixed success, but it is a fun journey nonetheless.
In Our Brand Is Crisis, campaign strategist “Calamity” Jane (Sandra Bullock) is brought in by Ben (Anthony Mackie) and Nell (Ann Dowd) to turn around a floundering presidential campaign in Bolivia. Jane had been in “retirement” for years after a string of losses to rival Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton) and some personal disasters linked to her struggles with depression and addiction. Although the candidate, Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), was once president of Bolivia, his campaign seems destined to lose. If she can turn it around, Jane might be able to fight her way back into politics. Meanwhile, Candy is managing the campaign for the clear winner of the race, Rivera (Louis Arcella), and is doing everything he can to stop Jane from getting an edge.
Our Brand Is Crisis seeks to be a political drama with a biting look at how campaigns are made and elections are won not by ideas, but by strategists and advertisements, often with jaded and cynical perspectives on the electorate. The added twist is the implied critique of Americans running elections in foreign, often volatile countries when they do not understand the culture or the issues that the citizens of those countries face. Jane, Candy, and their associates are pulling the strings behind the election and none of them even speaks Spanish proficiently. Although the film does dance around a critique of the serious problems this interference can cause, it ultimately pulls its punches, opting for an ending that is uplifting for Jane, but which leaves the outsider in a heroic position, even after the chaos the election caused in Bolivia. This element of the film does not sit well and causes an unevenness in the tone of the movie and a bait-and-switch ending that falls flat.
That said, other elements of the movie work really well. Not only does Our Brand Is Crisis pass the Bechdel Test (two women talk to each other about something other than a man), the character development throughout the film is strong. Although the relationship between young volunteer Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco), Castillo, and Jane is a pretty obvious tool to illustrate Castillo’s detachment from the people and Jane’s growing sensitivity to the people, the dynamic is passably organic and the chemistry between the three characters is more compelling than the antagonism between Jane and Candy. Candy is suitably disgusting as an antagonist and the film uses him well as a sexist pig, a symbol of what people hate about elections, and a foil to Jane. What makes the character really powerful, however, is the suggestion that he is not really very different from Jane at all. The darkness that their rivalry reveals about Jane helps balance out what could have been another hapless, troubled female lead and makes her instead a troubled, brilliant woman with questionable ethics. The ambivalence in her character is one of the more interesting parts of the film and Sandra Bullock does a excellent job of conveying the erratic genius of Jane with just enough of her “America’s sweetheart” charm.
I really enjoyed Our Brand Is Crisis and I do not think that it is a bad movie. I do think, however, that it suffers from a similar identity crisis to Jane. The film seems stuck between critique and uplift and, although the two can co-exist, the balance here is off, creating mixed messages and an underwhelming conclusion to an interesting story. 3/5 stars.
Our Brand Is Crisis was written by Peter Straughan, based on the documentary by Rachel Boynton, and directed by David Gordon Green. It runs 107 minutes and is rated R for language including some sexual references.