Our Brand is Crisis

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Oct 30, 2015
Sandra Bullock stars in 'Our Brand Is Crisis'
Sandra Bullock stars in 'Our Brand Is Crisis'  (Source:Warner Bro. Entertainment Inc.)

For the second time this year, a major Hollywood release (with major female star power) springs from a smaller documentary of the same title. In the case of "Freehold," which chronicles the struggle of a veteran police detective trying to bestow her pension to her same-sex domestic partner, the feature film was able to stick close to history; in the case of "Our Brand Is Crisis," however, the resulting narrative is fictionalized to the point of near-total fabrication, and the tone veers from farcical to bitter to a late-breaking, and unconvincing, attempt at uplift.

Sandra Bullock stars as a political consultant name Jane Bodine -- "Calamity Jane," as she's nicknamed, following some professional and personal misfortunes. Jane is drawn into the 2002 Bolivian elections (the subject of Rachel Boynton's 2005 documentary), where an unlikable politician named Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) is facing an uphill battle against a slate of other candidates, the most daunting of whom is a fellow named Rivera (Louis Arcella).

Castillo is not just stern -- "You make people feel like you're going to shoot them," Jane tells him -- he's also a man whose unpopularity is made worse by memories of his having been president once before, with disastrous economic consequences for ordinary Bolivians.

So far, the story runs roughly parallel to reality, and to the actual 2002 Bolivian elections. But now things get weird -- possibly in a good way, and with sporadically hilarious results: Jane has a personal stake in the electoral outcome. Not because of any particular love for the Bolivian people, mind you; rather, she's invested because Rivera has hired her longtime rival, another consultant named Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), a man for whom the word "sleazy" is less a slur than a way of life. The entire election becomes a sort of proxy war in which two Americans caught in a love-hate relationship duke it out with spin, rumors, and disinformation, with an entire nation caught in the crossfire.

The thing of it is, the movie doesn't seem to know what it wants to say. Are we to be disgusted with the manipulative circus the political process has become? This would be a worthy message; as a 2006 EDGE review of the DVD release for the original documentary asked, "Is the election, and consequently the economic fate of the Bolivian people, just a game to the consultants?" You certainly get the feeling that's true to a large extent -- and a well-paid game, at that.

But the movie doesn't necessarily condemn this, leaping with both feet into a sort of parodic frenzy that strands the film somewhere between "Wag the Dog" and "Animal House" -- until, that is, a late-breaking burst of the fables Hollywood liberalism intrudes, not with a ringing denouement but rather with a wholly unrealistic ray of decency shining into the sewers of political life. The muddled message and mixed tones of this tone-deaf farce leave us wondering: Are we up, or down? Gratified, or enraged? Really -- and this is the most disappointing thing of all -- the viewer might emerge from the cinema so perplexed that she doesn't even quite know left from right.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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