Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) is “what the CIA call an ‘expendable’. If she turns this thing around, we did it. If she messes it, well, she’s Calamity Jane.” So observes Nell (Ann Dowd), who means to enlist Jane — a notoriously ruthless, and recently retired, political consultant — for a “thing” in Bolivia, a presidential campaign. As Nell speaks to her colleague Ben (Anthony Mackie), Jane is across the room, washing a blood-red substance off her hands. Jane looks over at her visitors, and the camera, not hearing them but knowing, as you also know, that she’s going to say yes.
It’s just a couple of minutes into Our Brand Is Crisis, but the movie convention gears are in motion. Jane’s the reluctant hero to be pulled back in. Jane’s retirement was the result of a campaign gone bad, and since then, she’s been making pottery — in particular, “medicine bowls” to ward off evil spirits — which explains the red clay on her hands, serving of course as a gigantic emblem of what she’s done and is about to do again. Her initial skepticism will be rendered in physical sickness (it’s hard for her to adjust to the thin mountain air) and then her return to the game will be marked by her return to smoking and drinking, as well as repeated lingering close-ups of her eyes, knowing and increasingly secure in knowing.
Yes, Jane will rediscover the addictive appeal of the business, the thrill of winning and especially, the rewards of being really good at something, of manipulating outcomes and besting opponents. She’ll engage with associates adorned with comic-book-villainish names, including her own negative info researcher extraordinaire, LeBlanc (Zoe Kazan), and an opposing campaign’s consultant, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton). And she’ll remember what it might have been like to feel hopeful and inspired, when she meets the teenager Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco), a volunteer for Pedro Castillo’s (Joaquim de Almeida) campaign.
You know all this will happen even if you haven’t seen the film that inspired this one, Rachel Boynton’s documentary, also called Our Brand is Crisis. That film exposed corporate influence and political cynicism in the 2002 Bolivian presidential campaign; here, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s victory didn’t reveal a change in the campaign industry so much as it made clear (and extreme) its business as usual. This fictionalized version (billed as a comedy) imposes a moral arc for Jane, and also careens from slapsticky antics (a campaign tour bus chase on a winding mountain road, complete with a mooning incident) to personal confessions (featuring alcohol and tears, so they must be real), and dark pronouncements (selling candidates like products sullies the very idea of democracy).
Again and again in Our Brand Is Crisis, Jane comes to the brink of self-reckoning. First, she changes the look of her candidate Castillo (a former president of Bolivia cast out for corruption) from that of an awkward old man in a suit and tie to that of a strongman in his shirtsleeves, able and wiling to punch out adversaries. She argues against cheesy low-budget commercials directed by Rich Buckley (Scoot McNairy), wherein Castillo appears to be a savior, rescuing children falling from the sky. And, while her colleagues huddle in the dark recesses of the campaign’s shiny SUV, she gets out to visit Eddie’s neighborhood. Gee, they’re really poor. Her response is aptly haphazard, as she invites Eddie and a couple of his friends to her hotel, shares French fires and drinks, dances and bonds with them.
This episode parallels others, in that it illustrates her approach, hands-on, sympathetic, and utterly unconsidered, which is to say, ineffective. Her legendary skills are instinctual, a seeming parallel to a long history of US interventions, short-sighted and poorly planned. As Jane flirts ferociously with Pat Candy, whose metaphorical dick-swinging is as tedious as you might imagine it to be, this parallel seems underlined and italicized. Compared to the broadly evil Pat Candy, Jane (and the US she embodies) looks less bad. You want Jane to win. That desire, of course, makes you complicit in the manipulations, makes you appreciate the dirty tricks, at least for their comedic values.
Our Brand Is Crisis‘s formulaic episodes create clutter. They more or less move Jane along to her formulaic redemption, and they also more or less help to obscure what the movie leaves out, which is to say why an American consulting firm is in place in Bolivia to start.
The real-life story featured James Carville and Stan Greenberg’s consulting company, whose success with Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada paved the way for more and increased corruption in Bolivia. You see that part of the story here, in particular as young Eddie ponders the consequences of the election results. But you don’t see the American corporate and political interests explained; Nell has connections in the State Department, Ben has his eye on a next campaign in another troubled nation, and the IMF is involved, but for the most part, Bolivia’s economic and other crises appear to be their own rather than a function of US corporate or political investments.
And so Our Brand Is Crisis doesn’t quite achieve the sort of self-reflection that it offers Jane. She comes to see that the “thing” Nell refers to at film’s start is always and forever “messed up”, no matter what she does, that winning is losing. But as she comes to see what we already see, the plot we know will play out and the politics we know as hopelessly corrupt, the film doesn’t look smart as much as it looks late.