The title of the new movie Our Brand Is Crisis may be a mouthful, but it’s a simple enough concept: in this day and age, political campaigns are not about politics, or people, but about advertising. Based loosely on Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same name, the new movie turns a Bolivian election into a media battle.
Hardened political consultant ‘Calamity’ Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) — a fictional character — is called out of retirement to help elect (fictionalized) former president Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), despite his lagging in the polls. The current challenger (Louis Arcella), and leader in the polls, is under the guidance of Jane’s arch enemy, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton); whether intentional or not, he’s the only one who resembles James Carville, the subject of the documentary. Hell-bent on beating Candy, Jane makes the election personal, using all her best dirty tricks to make Candy’s candidate look like a monster, and to make her own monster look like a savior.
Director David Gordon Green, who made both goofy comedies (Pineapple Express) and meditative dramas (George Washington, Snow Angels), brings all his skills to the table. Our Brand Is Crisis moves in little segments, each depicting the next stage of the battle, ranging from town hall meetings to the decision of whether or not to “go negative.” Green gets in zippy moments of humor, but also vividly captures the spaces the film occupies. The rooms, streets, and auditoriums all feel lived-in and organic.
Likewise, the other members of Jane’s team, played by Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, and Zoe Kazan, feel like genuine, living characters who existed before the story began. But it’s Bullock, one of our last genuine movie stars, who holds it all together with her cunning performance. Her Jane carries a lifetime of pain and cynicism, a myriad of emotional scars, but she still feels the thrill of the fight. She mixes the two extremes in powerful, appealing ways.
If the movie has a failing, it’s in the blurred line between documentary and fiction. Basing the movie in a real country and on a real election (though the candidates’ names are changed), while the primary story arc is a white American’s, could, to some, feel disingenuous (especially given Jane’s last-minute career adjustment). However, as the thing that it actually is — a modern political satire — Our Brand Is Crisis has a clever, appealing blend of character, cynicism, and laughs. It could even help put into perspective our own, current, crazed political circus.