“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”
Our Brand is Crisis could be categorised as a political comedy/drama, although the comedy is dark and the drama all too close to reality. In fact, the story is based on real events, unlikely and depressing as that might seem after having watched the film. It is the story of a political strategist, a person who is hired by a candidate for office to manage his image, his public statements, and his campaign promises, to maximise his chances of being elected. It is also meant to be the story of one person’s experience with the ethical sinkhole of politics, and her eventual escape and redemption.
Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock), nicknamed ‘Calamity Jane’ for her energetic and bracing management techniques and her tendency to attract trouble, was an extremely successful political strategist, one who could get the most unlikely candidate elected. The film begins with Jane being interviewed, and talking candidly about the idealism that brought her into politics, how that idealism was lost, and what she did as a result. Jane’s reminiscences alternate with news clips about her past campaigns, including incidental but pointed references to corruption and underhanded dealings in U.S. politics, in cases which were presumably instigated by Jane Bodine herself. Asked how it all came about, the film goes into flashback and begins the central story.
A team of campaign managers visit Jane at her home to ask her help with their latest client, a candidate for the presidency of Bolivia. Jane has been on a six year hiatus from her work. The reason for this lapse, it is hinted, was a breakdown of some kind, followed by a lengthy recovery process. With some trepidation, Jane agrees to take the position.
The candidate in question, Pedro Castillo, seems to have little chance of winning the election. He had been president years before, during which time he became known as an elitist, who privatised industries and acted against the interests of the poor. Bolivia, a country ruled by a small, wealthy elite, in which the vast majority are extremely poor, have lost patience with outwardly well-intentioned plutocrats, and Jane Bodine’s team have a daunting task in convincing voters to accept Castillo.
At first Jane is disoriented by her sudden re-introduction into politics, and not fully committed to the job. Neither is she impressed by Castillo, who seems oddly detached from the process. When a familiar rival strategist, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton) appears, representing another candidate in the Bolivian election, Jane finally engages and begins trying to remake her client’s image. Her skills quickly come back to her, and she takes charge.
Acknowledging that the leading two candidates are populists who are seen, perhaps correctly, as having the people’s interests at heart, Jane reflects on past elections with similar difficulties, in which the oligarch managed to defeat the populist. The strategy she recommends is to suggest to the public a national crisis, economic and otherwise, which requires experience and a strong hand – the qualities Castillo seems to represent.
What follows is an alarming view of a presidential campaign seen mostly from behind the scenes. Jane openly advises deception, manipulating of perceptions, and plying the electorate with fear. She is in her element, employing any and every technique to deceive the populace in her client’s favour, reminiscing indiscreetly about past American elections and throwing out quotes from The Art of War as she goes.
The campaign is a fierce competition. Both Jane and her nemesis Pat Candy are completely cynical and without reservations about false promises made during the election. These claims are taken seriously only by the poor majority, whose presence is constantly felt but are rarely heard from. Every fact, however personal, is considered fair game, and may be released to the press should it be deemed useful in diminishing an opposing candidate or his family. Jane becomes victim to the practice when her time as a psychiatric patient and her occasional bouts with depression are made public knowledge.
As time goes on and Jane grows more familiar with Bolivia, the nation’s problems become clearer. She takes a little time to familiarise herself with one of the poorer neighbourhoods, the home of a young campaign intern, and she develops a certain sympathy for their concerns. However, these concerns are buried by the process of the campaign. Castillo wins the election by a very narrow margin, and immediately and unsurprisingly goes back on his earlier promises to the people.
The team of strategists and campaign workers prepare to leave the day after the election, just as mass protests form across the city, impeding their drive to the airport. Jane, in a typically Hollywood-style crisis of conscience, is overcome with remorse for what she has done to Bolivia, jumps out of the car and spontaneously joins the protesters.
The film leaves the flashback at this point and returns to the interview, where Jane describes how she chose to “get off the carousel” because the work was “soul stealing.” She concludes, “If you don’t like the road you’re on, start paving another one.”
Sandra Bullock is by turns sad and hilarious as the ruthless and cynical, yet confused and emotionally unsteady survivor of too many political battles. Her character juggles the many unspoken ethical questions brought up by her work in a way that is charmingly casual, yet which brings these questions to our attention. Billy Bob Thornton is properly obnoxious as her even more amoral rival, and their slightly obsessive personal competition parodies that of the actual election.
It is Jane’s eleventh-hour rehabilitation that may be the weak point of the film. Not enough has been done to lay the groundwork for this sudden change of heart and make it plausible. While the act is presented as heroic, it is also not terribly useful; it is hard to avoid thinking that it is an unfortunate case of too little, too late. Couldn’t Jane have gained a conscience before she condemned an entire country to several more years of poverty and exploitation – an outcome she could have predicted better than almost anyone? Even her “conversion” is mostly about herself, her soul, her guilt, and her feelings, not about the harm she has caused or what she might now do to help. The film stops short as Jane stands with the crowd of protesters in La Paz, but might well have gone on to suggest ways in which her considerable talents might be put to better use in the future.
In spite of these weaknesses in the concluding scenes, the movie overall is a strong, humorous, painfully cynical statement on modern politics and how its ends are achieved.
For further viewing: The idea for this script came partly from a 2005 documentary directed by Rachel Boynton, also titled Our Brand is Crisis, which deals with the political marketing of the 2002 Bolivian election by U.S. strategists.