“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” That statement is never truer than when it comes to politics, be it in the United States or elsewhere. As we have seen time and again with both narrative films and documentaries, election campaigning is a deadly, take-no-prisoners sport. The goal is always the same – winning – and the process typically means to win at any price no matter what tactics must be applied. But when you toss in the added layer of utilizing American marketing and advertising strategies, the process takes on a life of it own.
Timely and topical and in step with America’s current presidential campaign, leave it to the Smokehouse producing team of George Clooney and Grant Heslov, together with their co-conspirator Sandra Bullock, to serendipitously deliver “Our Brand Is Crisis” to the American public at the outset of our own 2016 campaign buffoonery. Suggested by Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same name which showcased the 2002 Bolivian election and its employment of American political campaign marketing tactics, director David Gordon Green works with an intelligent, rapier-witted script from Peter Straughan that drips delicious satire, fictionalizing that 2002 Bolivian election. With Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton as opposing political strategists, the gloves are off and we are treated to a film that is nothing short of brilliant.
Jane Bodine could rule the world; that is if she wasn’t burnt out on life and reduced to a self-induced therapeutic state of hiding in the mountains away from the world and making endless pottery bowls. Jittery from too much coffee and severely nicotine deprived, one can still see and feel her itch and the longing for the power and excitement that once being the greatest political strategist around gave her. So when campaign consultants Ben and Nell show up at her door, after much begging and pleading on their parts, Jane reluctantly agrees to head to Bolivia to work up the campaign of ex-president Castillo who is currently in fifth place with only 8% support of the voting public. But on her arrival, she gets the surprise of her life.
Turns out Ben and Nell forget to mention one little tidbit. The leading candidate, Rivera, has his own strategist – Pat Candy. Candy is Jane’s arch nemesis and worst nightmare and has won every campaign in which the two have competed. With Candy in the mix the stakes go beyond mere election work. It’s personal.
Immediately faced with altitude sickness and with Castillo and his team less than impressed with her alleged skills, things aren’t looking too good for Jane, or Castillo. Observant, quietly taking in the world around her as it unfolds, it comes as a total surprise to all when Jane jumps into action as the floodgates of ideas opens wide for her. Quoting Sun Tzu as easily as she quotes Warren Beatty or Winston Churchill or rattles off political facts, figures and parables, Jane is indeed a force to be reckoned with; something that Pat Candy relishes with dastardly abandon.
A game of words and deeds with Bodine flipping negatives on their heads and turning them into positives, she hits on an inspired marketing strategy. Crisis. “Our Brand Is Crisis”. And with Candy and Bodine pulling out every political trick in the book and pushing ethical boundaries to check and checkmate at every turn, there is great truth to be found in the ensuing antics, as well as a crisis of conscience with some wondering just how far is too far.
While both Sandra Bullock’s Jane Bodine and Billy Bob Thornton’s character of Pat Candy are based on real life paid political consultant James Carville, Bodine is the “fictionalized” character, with Pat Candy being an incarnation of Carville in those 2002 elections. Both Thornton and Bullock are unstoppable in their performances, individually and when going toe-to-toe. The glee that each brings to their respective role is too delicious for words. And when it comes to satiric delivery, each is perfection.
The level of smooth vitriol that Bullock injects into Jane, together with her patented physical comedic stylings, adds layers and edges that Clooney could not have brought in a man versus man scenario. This is without a doubt not only one of the best performances of Bullock’s career, but one of the most intelligent and sizzling roles written for a woman in the last twenty years. Bodine is written with what at times feels like a nod to Katherine Hepburn and Bullock plays it brilliantly.
An obvious extension of his Carville-esque role in “Primary Colors” (not to mention being based on James Carville himself), as Pat Candy, Billy Bob Thornton oozes
snake-oil slickness, ratcheting up the gamesmanship and cynicism with devilish delight.
Always a joy to see on screen is Joaquim de Almeida and here as ex-president and presidential candidate Castillo is no different. De Almeida embodies the “has been” persona seeking the limelight again. As Nell, Ann Dowd is a pillar of confidence while giving Nell shades of secrecy that adds to the texture of not only the character but the overall tapestry of the film. Anthony Mackie proves to be the moral compass and center of the film as Ben, grounding the story and holding true to the story origins.
But the real surprise of “Our Brand Is Crisis” is newcomer Reynaldo Pacheco. As young Castillo campaign worker, Eddie, Pacheco is pure wide eyed, unjaded, heart. He grounds us with hope and the power of idealism.
Directed by David Gordon Green and written by Peter Straughan, “Our Brand Is Crisis” is, in a word, brilliant. With a sense of “Wag the Dog” meets “Primary Colors” meets “Speechless” meets “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, this film has it all. The film walks the rapier line of satire, sarcasm and commentary, finding that sweet spot perfect balance of emotion and story. Political commentary is succinct and spot on showing the global interconnection/dependency/similarity of all countries and democratic systems. Significant is that script is so well structured that “Our Brand Is Crisis” evolves into a thoughtful and revelatory “Crisis of Conscience”.
Standout, though, is the satire and emotion. Writing, directing, performances – any one or a combination thereof could have been so far left or so far right or gone off the rails completely, but that doesn’t happen here.
As the film itself notes, “In politics, perception matters.” Same goes for movies. The perception on seeing “Our Brand Is Crisis” is brilliance.
Directed by David Gordon Green
Written by Peter Straughan
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy