If there’s any political insight to be found in David Gordon Green’s razor thin “Our Brand is Crisis”, it’s that American political campaigns are pretty awful, especially when they’re in other countries. Not that this will come as news to anyone who has had to endure a Donald Trump or Ben Carson stump speech lately, but the campaigns are all about instilling as much fear into the voters as possible. Who cares what the candidate actually stands for? So how does that work when those tactics are applied to foreign elections? Like a bland, unfunny political movie that has been focus grouped to death, apparently.
Based loosely on Rachel Boynton’s stellar award-winning documentary, “Our Brand is Crisis” is all about the dirty tactics waged by one American marketing firm during the Bolivian presidential election. Once again taking on the role of “savior to brown people everywhere” is Sandra Bullock as Jane Bodine, a strategist whose nickname “Calamity Jane” has been well-earned. After a series of major defeats she hit rock bottom and retired completely off the political grid, content in solitude and pottery projects. But that’s before she’s convinced to return and help lead the flagging campaign of Mitt Romney-esque Bolivian presidential candidate Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida). An ex-President who sold out the people to corporations, Castillo trails his opponent by 28 points largely because nobody trusts him.
So why would Bodine come back to bat for such a losing team? Because it gives her a chance to exact revenge on her greatest rival, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), who was hired by Castillo’s opponent. Bodine and Candy are known for their dirty, totally immoral “win at any costs” tactics, but the simplified screenplay by Peter Straughan (“Frank”, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) draws a clear good guy vs. bad guy line in the sand. It’s an approach he takes towards the entire story, perhaps in an effort to make the film as palatable to audiences as possible.
The thing is “Our Brand is Crisis” should be a very complex story about American interference in foreign elections, but it’s just…not. Instead it’s like Green used this as an opportunity to reconcile his somewhat schizophrenic career. This is the same guy who directed downbeat indie dramas such as “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls” before embracing R-rated low-brow comedies like “The Sitter” and “Your Highness”. While there are a few insightful moments in “Our Brand is Crisis”, mostly involving Castillo as he tries to be more than the corrupt politician he’s been pegged to be, too much of the film is wildly out of sync tonally. There’s a weird bus chase along a perilous roadway that comes out of nowhere, and a party/drug montage that might have been lifted straight from “Pineapple Express”, which Green also directed. Speaking of montages, they are too frequently used here as short hand for the desires of the Bolivian people, who don’t come across particularly well here. It’s like the Americans had to come in to teach them about their own government.
Bullock, Hollywood’s go-to gal for a good “white savior” role, acquits herself nicely as the feisty, Sun Tzu-quoting Bodine. Her role had originally been intended for a male actor, but producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov decided to go in a different direction, apparently so there could be some sexual tension or something. The rest of the cast don’t fare as well. Mackie, Dowd, Scoot McNairy, and Zoe Kazan have little to do but play off of Bullock, while Thornton snivels his way through a role clearly based on top Democratic strategist James Carville.
The biggest problem with “Our Brand is Crisis” is that it’s stuck in the limbo between being a serious political drama and a mainstream studio effort. This is best exemplified by the finale; an empty, crowd-pleasing gesture that feels like it was written by focus groups. There’s a ton of great talent and a savvier political movie might have made good use of them, but instead the documentary remains the best telling of this particular story.