Our Brand is Crisis stumbles in turning the 2002 Bolivian presidential election into a cohesive dramedy but the film is packed with memorable humor.
After a decade brawling on the stage of United States political theater, Jane “Calamity” Bodine (Sandra Bullock) is living a quiet life in a remote mountain cabin. Three years sober and getting the best sleep of her life, Bodine spends her days crafting pottery and recovering from her former job as a campaign strategist. When past colleague Nell (Ann Dowd) and consultant for hire Ben (Anthony Mackie) show up on Bodine’s doorstep, asking for her expertise in the 2002 Bolivian presidential campaign, Bodine initially declines the job – until she discovers that her former rival, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), has been hired to aid an opposing candidate.
Despite her disillusions about electoral processes, and all around disdain for politicians, Bodine cannot resist a chance to beat Candy, agreeing to help Nell, Ben, and director of advertising Rich (Scoot McNairy) back Bolivian President turned senator turned Presidential candidate, Pedro Gallo (Joaquim de Almeida). However, in the aftermath of his previous (controversial) administration from 1993 to 1997, Gallo is an unpopular choice in Bolivia – forcing Bodine and her colleagues to reframe Gallo’s candidacy to suit his strengths: a steady hand in a time of “crisis.”
Our Brand is Crisis draws inspiration, and its premise, directly from the actual 2002 Bolivian presidential election; still, most details and names have been changed in order to transform the very real (and sometimes violent) upheaval of 2002 Bolivia into a digestible docu-dramedy. Director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) is challenged with maintaining a very careful balance between social (and political) commentary as well as comedic banter and entertaining situations. The result is an amusing but very routine tale of a jaded character, pulled out of retirement, who then reconnects with her passions just in time to instill actual change.
Unfortunately, the blurry lines between fact and fiction in Our Brand is Crisis undermine the strength of Green’s core messaging. It’s a commendable tale that highlights the importance of grassroots action – rather than (hollow) promises. Yet, with so many alterations to the real story of Bolivia’s 2002 election, Green struggles to ensure that his fictional retelling of the competition between the real-life of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Evo Morales is as poignant as it is entertaining – especially given the risk of leading moviegoers to believe the events presented in Our Brand is Crisis actually occurred as depicted.
Plenty of films take significant liberties with history, favoring a thematic portrait of people and/or events instead of a straightforward retelling (see: Steve Jobs); nevertheless, the cheeky tone of Green’s movie is often at odds with its stakes – turning a fertile backdrop for social-satire or contemplative docu-drama into a muddled mix of the two that is neither profound nor outright funny.
Unsurprisingly, Bullock (Gravity) is charming in the lead role; though, Our Brand is Crisis is unlikely to be the award season darling the actress may have been promised when she signed on for her part. Bullock makes every moment with Bodine believable – from tough talk with Gallo to frantic (and even drunken) campaign shenanigans. Even though Bodine is entirely fictional, Bullock manages to depict her political strategist with charisma and nuance – blending humor and heart, even though the larger film fails in that same endeavor. It is Green’s generic depiction of Bodine and her journey from deadened consultant to political activist, that underwhelms in Our Brand is Crisis, not the actress.
Similarly, Thornton (Fargo) transforms callous campaign manager Pat Candy, a thin nemesis cliché on the page, into one of the movie’s biggest successes. Every interaction between Bodine and Candy is engaging – thanks to a tense but playful relationship between the opposing strategists (as well as great chemistry from their respective performers). Sadly, most of the pair’s interactions are brief checkpoints in the unfolding tale – with only a few vague allusions to their storied rivalry. Even with a strong turn from Thornton, Candy is underused – especially since Our Brand is Crisis attempts a hasty summation of Bodine and her troubled history by spelling out a moment where the pair’s feud went too far – without actually bringing Bodine’s flaws (alcoholism, self-loathing, and specious morals) full circle.
Like Thornton, Joaquim de Almeida (Fast Five) is another standout as Gallo (inspired by President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada). The actor’s transformation of Gallo throughout Our Brand is Crisis, as the candidate embraces Bodine’s advice, is more nuanced than viewers might initially think – succeeding on a level that is only apparent in the film’s final act. Alternatively, supporting players, especially Anthony Mackie (Captain America: Civil War) and Scoot McNairy (Batman V Superman) offer exaggerated takes on political drama tropes. Neither character is fleshed-out; still, they succeed in their main purpose – as a mirror on which Bodine can reflect her evolving feelings about Gallo, politics, and disenfranchised Latin Americans.
Our Brand is Crisis stumbles in turning the 2002 Bolivian presidential election into a cohesive dramedy but the film is packed with memorable humor – especially Green’s version of a mountainside car chase. Viewers who understand that Our Brand is Crisis is not a definitive retelling of the real life Lozada campaign (which resulted in tumultuous cultural upheaval, mass protests, and even death) will find intriguing moments of insight into how American campaign management (and misinformation) has influenced aspiring politicians around the world. Elections are an easy target for social satire but the 2002 Bolivian setting adds a fresh perspective through which to view American politics (mostly for the worse).
Viewers looking for an educational adaptation of Bolivian political history will, without question, find a lot of problems with Green’s use of the contest between Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Evo Morales. Similarly, moviegoers hoping for a zany dramedy may find that Green spends too much time (struggling) to emphasize larger sociocultural messages instead of delivering cutting satire. Instead, Our Brand is Crisis lands in a safe middle ground. It won’t inspire political activism or hearty laughs but serves as a palatable reminder that, sometimes, real-life is stranger than fiction – especially in political theater.
Our Brand is Crisis runs 107 minutes and is Rated R for language including some sexual references. Now playing in theaters.
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