The Sandra Bullock-starring Our Brand Is Crisis is an acidic, biting political satire that asserts the notion that marketing has taken over the democratic process. There’s truth in that thesis, especially since the film is based on a documentary of the same name that captured the machinations of American political and branding consultants for hire during a 2002 election in Bolivia.
For director David Gordon Green, it’s a step in a new, more sophisticated direction, and for producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney, the film is an entry into their stable of slick political romps that are topical whether they are contemporary or not.
“Calamity” Jane (Bullock) is dragged out of self-imposed retirement by Ben (Anthony Mackie) and Nell (Ann Dowd), political operatives looking for a scapegoat as much as they are a ringer. They’ve secured a contract with a presidential candidate, Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), in Bolivia and are heading for parts south with a team including branding guru Buckley (Scoot McNairy).
What actually gets Jane on the plane to Bolivia is the chance to square off with her longtime sworn nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), who’s been enlisted by the competition.
Jane is a perfect role for Bullock’s everywoman persona — she plays her as a bit of an idiot savant, rumpled, constantly clutching a half-eaten bag of salty snacks, outfitted in her ever-present trench coat and glasses. She spouts Sun Tzu and Machiavelli quotes at random, but she’s clear-eyed and not a sycophant, which allows her to see through the mess of Castillo’s campaign.
She claims the nebulous threat of “crisis” as their brand, and the tide starts to turn. When she launches all-out war on their competition, it’s personal more than anything else — she just wants to beat Pat Candy
The team, and the film, harbor no starry-eyed belief in Castillo as a candidate — he’s basically the Donald Trump of Bolivia, a billionaire who’s been president once before. The people believe he will go running right to the IMF and plunge their country into a pit of globalized debt.
He just might, but that’s not the point for his campaign team, who can only see poll numbers. For Jane, it’s a blood feud played out on a national landscape that won’t have any effect on her real life.
Much hay has been made of the fact that the lead role was originally written for a male actor, and it’s to the film’s credit (and writer Peter Straughan) that it never becomes about Jane’s gender. Nor is it about the other political fixer’s gender or race. They are all driven by the same craven political competitiveness that transcends their identities — for better or, probably, worse.
Jane is a genius, but she’s deeply flawed and complicated, struggling with substance abuse, mental illness, her own past regrets. That dark underbelly adds depth and dimension to the ironic humor of Our Brand Is Crisis. The team laughs, drinks and pranks each other to keep their own consciences at bay. Jane’s real demon is her own existential terror.
The film is deeply cynical, and there’s a fearlessness in that cynicism. This is undermined in the 11th hour by an implausible change of heart that feels tacked on to please focus groups and give the film a Hollywood ending.
While Jane gets the hero’s redemption, she’s far more interesting when she’s not being a hero.
Our Brand Is Crisis
Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Joaquim de Almeida, Scoot McNairy
Rated: R (strong language including sexual references)
Running time: 107 min.