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November 25, 2015

The Rocky series has so long been a punchline of ’80s franchise filmmaking that it’s easy to forget that the film that started it all was nominated for ten Academy Awards, and won three. Sylvester Stallone became a fixture of big, dumb action movies, and his sleepy face and voice made it easy to think of him as just a big, dumb guy, especially as boxing started to lose a lot of its cultural cachet. But the man earned both his nominations in Rocky — for best actor and best original screenplay — before the series slipped into self-parody.

So there’s room for quality in the latest installment, Creed, but we have to get back to what made Rocky great. Cut out the stunt casting and the Cold War proxies. Break it down to what makes most boxing movies actually work: a man overcoming adversities through grit and determination to prove something to the world and to himself. Or occasionally a woman, but this is a very testosterone-soaked genre.

Of course, a protagonist overcoming adversity is basically every story out there, but boxing movies boil that down to a concentrated essence. There is no vague metaphor here; the adversary is the guy in the other corner who is literally trying to knock the hero down. And, in the best examples, the build-up starts from nothing: boxing movies inhabit hardscrabble urban neighborhoods where athletic skill can often feel like the only way up and out. Boxing, unlike team sports, concentrates that skill and drive into one person.

So writer/director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Aaron Covington have their work cut out for them if they want to transfer focus from the Italian Stallion to the son of his most famous rival, Apollo Creed. They manage to come up with something, though: Adonis “Don” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) was the product of an affair, and was born after Apollo died. His mother died soon after, and he was left to orphanages and group homes, where he had to fight to survive until Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) adopted him. So Don has all the money and comfort his father’s career could provide, but laid over a hard-edged kid from the streets who wants to thrive on his own name, not his father’s.

So Don quits his cushy California finance job and moves to Philadelphia to find Rocky (Stallone) managing his restaurant, Adrian’s. He meets a love interest of his own, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who provides a counterpoint to his training: Don needs to control his temper both inside and outside the ring.

The overall shape of the story is a pretty standard lead-up to the climactic title fight with “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), the British fighter who wants one last big cash grab before serving a jail sentence. Overcoming the shadow of his father’s name adds a certain twist to Don’s story, but it still follows in a well-worn track.

Where Creed really shines, though, is in Coogler’s direction and the camera work by The Wrestler cinematographer Maryse Alberti. Her camera is always inside the ring with the fighters, as close as they are to each other, and as tightly choreographed. There is no chaotic editing to cover a fight in a flurry of cuts; everything is impeccably clear. The pinnacle is the fight at the film’s mid-point, which they capture in a single long take.

Even outside the ring, Coogler goes for a lot of long takes, but always keeping to natural phrases in the story. He makes sure we can see his skill, but never turns unnecessarily flashy. This isn’t a film about a showboater, after all. Like Don, Coogler is an immense talent, just starting to make a name for himself. He knows how to impress us, but also shows the discipline to make a truly great film.

And the same goes for Jordan, whom Coogler directed in his first feature, Fruitvale Station. Even in his lesser roles, Jordan is usually the most interesting actor on the screen, and Don is one of his best. And yet he easily shares that space with Stallone, who turns in what may be his best performance in decades.

The Rocky series dug way down over the years, chasing its own ghosts. Creed finds new blood in Coogler and Jordan, respecting and honoring the past, while finding new ground where the franchise can be as great as it once was.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2

November 20, 2015
Mockingjay Part 2

This is the way The Hunger Games ends
This is the way The Hunger Games ends
This is the way The Hunger Games ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Although actually there are a number of bangs in Mockingjay, Part 2. It’s just that most of them don’t feel that notable. The biggest, most climactic one is still followed by something like a half-hour denouement that worked a lot better on the pages of Suzanne Collins’ novel.

Before that point, though, it’s a long, slow crawl. In a sense, that’s as it should be; Mockingjay is Collins’ attempt to deconstruct the false glory of war and the desire for revenge, using the ever-present internal monologue of Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence in the movie, for those not paying attention yet) to lead her readers through the ideas. But as I’ve been saying all along, the internal monologue doesn’t translate well to a teen-oriented CGI-fest. The more abstract the problems Katniss is working through, the less it works, and this argument is abstract enough that a huge chunk of the adult American population has yet to understand it.

And so, for an “action” movie, most of the action is reduced to a dull slog as Katniss and crew make their way through booby-trapped streets to the center of the Capitol and the palace of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), whether or not that’s the way rebellion leader Coin (Julianne Moore) wants it. The high point is a claustrophobic sewer-run that owes more than a little to Aliens, capped off with a chaotic fight scene.

Along the way, the story tries to play up the Team Gale (Liam Hemsworth) vs. Team Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) conflict that never really worked as a marketing gimmick the way Edward/Jacob did for Twilight, again largely because most of what distinguishes the two in Katniss’ mind is in, well, her mind and not in dramatically different eye-candy presentations. Without direct access to her thoughts, all the life is sucked out of these relationships.

The other major source of plot and character development takes place almost entirely within that extended denouement I mentioned. Sutherland and Moore get in some of their best work in the series here, and the points do come across, if more clumsily than Collins originally wrote them. The series manages to come around from venting the righteous indignation most of its teenage audience can identify with, to grappling with the much harder question of what to actually do with that anger. As far as they fall short of the novels, The Hunger Games movies manage to stand above the rest of their genre.

Still, they do fall short, and each one falls shorter than the previous one. As young-adult dystopian novels, the story made better, more thoughtful use of the genre’s tropes than its peers that pandered to typically teenage impulses. But as action movies, thoughtfulness isn’t really their strong suit. Maybe some day we’ll get another cinematic treatment that really does make the most of the books’ strengths. I’m not expecting a monolithic, four-hour Malickian epic any time soon, and I know that the producers’ target demographic would never go for it anyway, but if it comes I’d watch the hell out of that version.

Worth It: if you’ve seen the rest, you may as well finish it off.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.


November 13, 2015

I write this a week after seeing John Crowley’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, and still just the thought brings up a sense of warmth and well-being. I can imagine there are people out there who just don’t care for period pieces, or for Nick Hornby’s screenplays, or even, somehow, for Yves Bélanger’s gorgeous, softly glowing cinematography. But, once you’ve set aside these sorts of “I just don’t like this kind of movie” objections, this film is flawless. There is simply nothing I can see to improve, even if I could get past the shame I’d feel at such miserly nit-picking of this large and generous story.

Like Tóibín’s novel, Brooklyn tells the story of a young woman who emigrates from Ireland to America in the early 1950s. Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) smart and ambitious, but there’s precious little work at home in her small village. Her sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), contacts a priest she knows in Brooklyn; Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) arranges a sales-floor job in a department store and a room in an Irish ladies’ boarding house run by Miss Kehoe (Julie Walters), and Eilis is off across the western ocean.

Eilis is ambivalent, caught between her excitement and her apprehension. Her family and friends are ambivalent as well, wishing her good fortune while also remaining sure that her true place is at home in Eire. But she’s hardly alone; as the ship pulls out of dock, Crowley’s camera scans away from Eilis’ family, across the gathered crowds, each of whom is there to the same bittersweet end.

The crossing is unpleasant, but Eilis survives with the help of a more seasoned young Irish lady who’s returning to her own new life after a visit back to the old country. She learns how to avoid seasickness, and how to fix her makeup so she doesn’t get quarantined at Ellis Island. When asked how long it takes for letters to arrive from home, Eilis’ benefactor tells her “at first forever, and then no time at all”. The script is filled with achingly beautiful poetry like this.

And indeed Eilis’ first days and weeks in Brooklyn are defined by her homesickness. But as time goes by, life gets easier. She gains the confidence of her landlady, and learns to navigate the social waters of Irish immigrants. She even meets a young man, Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), crashing an Irish dance over the objections of his kid brother. They fall in love as Tony tells her his dreams of building and renting houses out on Long Island.

But tragedy strikes, and Eilis must return to her hometown. With long sea voyages on either end, her trip starts out at two months, and the locals are seemingly conspiring to extend that as long as possible. They get her working part-time, using her new certificate in bookkeeping as a lure. And she gets introduced to Jim Farrell (Domnhall Gleeson), who already has a house and steady job of his own in town.

It’s hardly the most complicated subject in the world, catching a young woman’s heart between two far-flung coasts. But Crowley infuses his film with a magnanimous spirit that elevates it above the simplicity of the story. It has already become common for critics to describe the film as “old-fashioned”, but what it harks back
to is less about cinematic technique than it is a time before we confused “seriousness” and “sophistication” with an ability to handle puerility without smirking.

There is nothing licentious or scandalous here. Even the one love scene feels like it would demur to a shot of the fire and a fade-in on the next morning if there were a fireplace in Eilis’ room. This is not a story about some rarified extreme of human experience, but one about the life-affirming wonder of day-to-day existence. It is “old-fashioned” only in its utter lack of cynicism, which is refreshing in our current irony-draped age. Brooklyn is that rare film that can make you feel like a better person for having seen it, and can make that feeling last beyond the roll of the credits.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace test: pass.


November 13, 2015

When people talk about the death of news and newspapers, it can be hard to get worked up over it. In terms of what’s happening on a day-to-day basis, the rise of 24-hour cable news networks ate the papers’ lunch years ago, just as they in turn are getting scooped on the regular by the internet and social media.

It’s now common in the middle of an outrage storm to see complaints that cable news isn’t even covering a given story. And while it’s true that corporate media often have some screwed up priorities when compared with grassroots communication, it’s kind of like asking why a battleship isn’t chasing after that escaping speedboat. The apparatus of a major news network simply doesn’t turn that fast. And if cable news is a battleship, print news is a supertanker.

The case for newspapers simply cannot be made on the basis of speed, which is what most people seem to think about. The news is, well, new. But as important as it is to get the story first, it’s also important to get the story right, which is a much longer, slower process. The always-on cable news cycle doesn’t lend itself to deep, investigative journalism, and the churning internet will get distracted by another listicle of what ten people look like with and without their glasses — I’m not even kidding here — before it can really dig into a tough story.

What we mourn with the loss of newspapers isn’t their ability to present the news — the latest, breaking, day-to-day information — but the way they’ve thrown their resources behind long-form investigative journalism in a way that none of the replacements have quite managed to replicate.

At The Boston Globe, their dedicated investigative team is called “Spotlight”, and in January 2002 they broke the clerical abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese wide open. Spotlight tells the story behind their story as carefully and meticulously as the Spotlight team itself did.

It started when Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) moved in as the new Globe editor, and in his first meeting asked about the follow-up to a column. Attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), representing some eighty victims of clerical abuse, claimed the existence of sealed documents that painted a damning portrait of a coverup that reached all the way up to Bernard Cardinal Law, the very head of the archdiocese. But the Globe’s coverage was a single writeup by a single columnist, not even technically a news story. He directed Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) to suggest Spotlight take up the story.

The team — Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) — started with a literature search. It seems easy enough, but back before everything was digitized this meant picking some search terms and going into the archive to pull out folders of clippings that held every story the Globe had ever run containing those terms. Meanwhile, Rezendes went to track down the irascible Garabedian, trying to pick up the story from his end.

Slowly, but surely, the pattern begins to emerge. The team starts to recognize names, and they suss out the code words in the archdiocese’s own publications that indicate abusive priests. It’s difficult to get much help; the Church touches the lives of everyone in Boston, and even non-Catholics have a vested interest in not rocking the boat. At every step they close ranks, and as it becomes clearer what the Spotlight team are after they start pushing back. It’s gentle, but enough to remind us what power they wield.

Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy wisely includes victims’ stories as well, which keeps us from abstracting away the very real pain at the heart of the story. It also ignites our sense of outrage, just as it affected the team itself. But he also keeps the focus clearly on the story, and on the long game. And when Rezendes flips out in his rage and indigation, Robinson pulls him back just as McCarthy pulls us back. This isn’t about the crusading reporters tilting at the establishment and striking a blow for freedom, as satisfying as that story may be in the moment. This is about building an airtight case that will stick to its target and not be easily brushed aside. It’s the sort of thing only deep, patient investigative journalism can do.

In this way, Spotlight stands in the company of All the President’s Men, and apart from lesser fare like Truth. The Spotlight team deserve all the praise and awards they received, but the film isn’t about lionizing them. McCarthy is uninterested in hagiography. We learn little about them beyond their relationship to the story they uncovered, and their exploits are certainly not backed with a comic-book-hero score.

Spotlight reminds us both how valuable deep, long-form investigative reporting is, and how difficult it can be. We abandon this sort of watchdog on the institutions that shape our world at our own great peril, and we need to remember what we’re giving up as we let the one place it still thrives slip into the dustbin of history.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Love the Coopers

November 13, 2015
Love the Coopers

Few movies are as disappointing as one that raises your hopes only to let you down hard at the end. From the outside, Love the Coopers looks like yet another cutesy, confluentialist holiday comedy in the vein of New Year’s Eve, but at the scale of a single family gathering for Christmas dinner. And if that’s all it had been, I wouldn’t be so frustrated. But it spends most of its running time seeming like a much smarter story — almost set out to undermine the sort of movie it’s pretending to be — before taking a hard turn at the end into exactly what it appeared to be all along.

The Coopers are Sam and Charlotte (John Goodman and Diane Keaton), living in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and the extended family that’s coming together for the holiday. Charlotte’s sister Emma (Marisa Tomei) will be there, and their father Bucky (Alan Arkin). Their daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde) is flying in; their son Hank (Ed Helms), his kids Charlie (Timothée Chalamet), Bo (Maxwell Simkins), and Madison (Blake Baumgartner), and his ex-wife Angie (Alex Borstein) all live in the area. Oh, and they’re getting Sam’s Aunt Fishy (June Squibb) out of the nursing home for the evening too.

Of course, everyone’s got their problems. Or at least most of them do; Aunt Fishy and Madison are largely around for comic relief.

Bo is upset at his parents’ divorce and wants to earn his brother’s respect, while Charlie cares more about the girl he likes. The one-sided sibling rivalry is echoed in Emma’s jealousy over Charlotte’s life, which leads her to try — and fail — to steal a brooch from a local department store as a one-upping gift. This leads to her arrest by Officer Williams (Anthony Mackie) and a long, winding drive around the city during which she tries to provide him impromptu counseling.

Eleanor has the usual dissonant relationship with her mother, and hangs out in the airport bar rather than go directly home. It’s here she meets Joe (Jake Lacy), a soldier headed to his own home for the holidays between boot camp and shipping out, but currently stuck with a cancelled flight. They hit it off in an opposites-attract sort of way, and she asks him to fake being her boyfriend to avoid her mother’s disappointment.

Hank has lost not only his marriage, but his job as a department store photographer, though he hasn’t told anyone. He’s also nursing a crush on a young woman who came in with her family for a holiday card. She just happens to be Ruby (Amanda Seyfried), the waitress at the diner where Bucky eats regularly, mostly to see her. She’s about to move out of town, desperate to make a change in her life, which comes as a real shock to Bucky.

But the biggest problem is between Charlotte and Sam: after forty years of marriage they’ve grown apart and Sam wants to call it quits. Charlotte has made him promise one last “perfect Christmas” before he leaves, but the pressure of keeping up appearances is weighing on him.

The tone is all over the place, with some parts goofy and some parts almost somber. And yet, for much of the movie this plays as a kind of exaggeration of the mood swings common to this genre. Love the Coopers seems aware of what it is, and seems determined to deconstruct it. More than once we hear a comment about how arbitrary the holidays are, and how weird it is to focus all our expectations of joy and happiness on a single day. But that focus is key to a holiday movie like this; without it there’s no reason to expect everyone’s drama to come together in the same place and time.

Director Jessie Nelson finds plenty of creative expressions of fantasy as well. Over and over we see what the characters imagine, often replaced immediately by the more pedestrian reality. It highlights the artificial nature of these kinds of stories, showing us the “movie version” of the story before replacing it with something closer to real human relationships.

Until, that is, it doesn’t. The last twenty minutes depart radically from this strategy, fully embracing the artificial movie version of events, aimed towards resolving everyone’s problems neatly and providing everyone a happy ending. It’s such a hard turn that I seriously wonder if Steven Rogers’ original script continued in its more bittersweet direction, but the studio panicked after poor tests with audiences who wanted something more traditional. The tone and even the language suddenly change, and whatever thoughtfulness Love the Coopers had built up vanishes into the cold winter’s night.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

The Peanuts Movie

November 5, 2015
The Peanuts Movie

When Black Mass came out, the most vociferous criticism came from Boston-area reviewers; they take Whitey Bulger seriously there. Well, I’m originally from Minneapolis, and up there we take Charles Schulz more seriously than most. And while there may be little that’s actively terrible about Blue Sky’s The Peanuts Movie, it’s just not my Peanuts.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that Schulz was the paragon of artistic identity that Bill Watterson was — the day his estate sells the movie rights to Calvin & Hobbes will be a dark one indeed — but he did try to use his creations for more than just a cash grab. The original and most famous animated Peanuts special stood as a cri de coeur against the 1960s’ rising tide of Christmas commercialism. That said, today it’s chopped up and edited down to fit in more ads; the message has become somewhat diluted.

To the good, The Peanuts Movie is a calmer, slightly more thoughtful affair than most non-Pixar feature animation today, and a huge improvement over Blue Sky’s Ice Age and Rio movies. They again went to children for the voice acting, which shows someone was paying at least a little attention. For what it’s worth they’re clearly more professional than the original cast from the specials, whom they mimic fairly well. It’s easy enough to slip back into thinking of these as just the same old familiar characters in new skins.

I can’t speak as highly of their choice for the animation, though: a ghastly collage of realistic hair textures, soft-sculpture bodies, and Schulz’ line-work for detail. Nothing was wrong with the classic animation style that held up fine through the original four animated Peanuts features. Moving to a rendered look does allow them to tack on a surcharge for 3-D effects that are wasted outside of Snoopy’s running Red Baron fantasies, and aren’t that impressive then either.

The story is largely cobbled together from old Peanuts storylines, centered around Charlie Brown’s crush on the Little Red-Haired Girl. While dealing with a crush like this was important for the strip, it was never really the strongest bit and Schulz was wise not to go back to it too often. If the object of Charlie Brown’s affection is somewhat abstracted from his experience, it makes a sort of sense that she never really gets a proper name. But as the main focus of this story the fact that nobody seems to know her name starts to stick out a lot more.

Since her appellation is canonical in the strip, there’s probably no good way to change it for the movie, which just indicates how bad an idea it was to build the script around this story. So why did they do it? again, the obvious answer is that it was the easy, profitable way. A love interest is a nice, canned story that kids already understand, so using one is a good way to avoid challenging them. And using two is even better, so Snoopy’s fantasy itself centers around rescuing “Fifi” from the Red Baron.

There’s a lot of other stuff going on too, mostly drawn from old Peanuts tropes. There’s Snoopy stealing Linus’ blanket, Lucy’s crush on Schroeder, the kite-eating tree, Frieda’s naturally-curly hair, and so on. The first half hour is basically a litany of “hey, remember this from the comic strip?” moments. And they cram in almost every peripheral character they can, down to 5 95472’s name on a posted list of standardized test scores. About the only notable character I didn’t notice was Rerun, whom even Schulz seemed apologetic for at the time.

As rote as the nostalgia-fest can get, the quality falls off when the movie ventures onto new ground, especially when it feels more modern than Schulz’ strip. Mostly, it resembles the cash-grab Peanuts specials from the ’90s on. It’s not as pandering as most animated kids’ movies these days, but it comes more from an effort to make “what [the writers think] kids will like” than to make something good and invite the kids to come along, the way Schulz did at his best.

Because, at its best, Peanuts was always about goodness, especially in the face of adversity. Near the beginning of the movie, Charlie Brown muses that he’s always been a failure, but not for the lack of trying. He struggles and falls, but never gives in to cheap, mean shortcuts. He is honest and decent and generous, even in his defeat.

The Peanuts Movie at least gets that much. But, by the end, it shows that it doesn’t really understand what made Peanuts so great. Charlie Brown — my Charlie Brown, at least — will never kick the football. He will never keep his kite out of the tree. He will never win more than a handful of baseball games. Charlie Brown isn’t honest and decent and generous because this is a just world where eventually he will be rewarded for taking the high road. He is all these things despite the fact that the world is stacked against him, and he still knows that it’s the right thing to do.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Our Brand Is Crisis

October 30, 2015
Our Brand is Crisis

David Gordon Green’s narrative film, Our Brand Is Crisis, diverges wildly from the facts presented in Rachel Boynton’s documentary about the American political advisors involved in the 2002 Bolivian presidential campaign. Normally such radical changes — more than just sanding off the edges and providing a smoother narrative contour — are made in the name of cheap dramatics, as we saw in Unstoppable. But in this case, Green is actually working a much more interesting angle; one which, unfortunately, I’ll eventually have to use a spoiler to discuss.

In Boynton’s documentary, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada hired American political strategy consultants from the firm of Greenberg Carville Shrum to help his bid to return to the presidency. In Green’s film, Pedro Gallo as Castillo (Joaquim ds Almeida) has already hired advisors Nell (Ann Dowd), Ben (Anthony Mackie), and Rich (Scoot McNairy). But their campaign for Castillo still lags far behind
the main opposition candidate Rivera (Louis Arcella), largely because Rivera has hired James Carville stand-in Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton). So they bring in expert strategist “Calamity” Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) from the political wilderness.

What ensues is an American-style political media war, played out on an unsuspecting Bolivian stage. Bodine quickly settles on the messaging for the Castillo campaign to oppose the reform trend of the opposition: crisis. Bolivia is in a tough spot, and Castillo is the only strong and forceful leader who can keep a steady course through the storm. Bodine and Candy each deploy all their favorite dirty tricks in order to get an edge over the other.

Bodine brings on opposition researcher LeClerc (Zoe Kazan), eager to go negative and to defend against Candy’s negative tactics. It doesn’t matter much to her whether or not negative campaigning is the norm in Bolivian elections; the only thing that matters is the win, since that’s what she’s been hired to deliver. She shows signs of instability, slipping back into old vices, but they only drive her to fight harder for her candidate, slowly working his way even with the leaders in the polls just before the election.

This is mostly a standard narrative for a mainstream American film. The scrappy underdog Bullock fights hard against the sleazy established power Thornton. It’s all but a foregone conclusion that Castillo will squeak out a close victory on election night. And even if he falls just short, Bodine will have learned and grown, and a happy Sandra Bullock will be our limbic reward.

Green directs this standard narrative masterfully, drawing us in to the familiar, comfortable rhythms of the horse race. The Castillo campaign, in rich purple, stands out against the Rivera campaign, in sickly green and yellow. We ride the initial setbacks, which remind us who the underdog is here, and we celebrate Bodine’s victories along with her as the campaign starts to climb under her management. Green shows only the briefest of hints that there’s something else going on here.

If you’d rather avoid all spoilers, this is probably the time to stop.

What the familiar story lulls us into forgetting is that Castillo might actually be a terrible president. And indeed, soon after his election the real Sánchez de Lozada directed the massacre of protestors in El Alto and fled the country in disgrace to the United States, where our state department has refused to extradite him to stand trial for his crimes in Bolivia since 2003. In the film, Castillo is no sooner elected than he reneges on his campaign promises and sparks violent protests in La Paz. protest sites are right to draw attention to the real-life injustice, though they give Green too little credit for being on their side all along.

The real story of Our Brand Is Crisis isn’t the one about the scrappy underdog in a horse-race campaign the sleazy established power. It’s a story about American-style politics doing palpable harm to an entire nation already on edge. Because, as we seem to forget here, elections are not just popularity contests; they have real-world consequences.

And it’s understandable why we might forget. People who look like me — or, even more generally, people who watch mainstream dramatic films starring Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton — are probably not going to feel the consequences of our elections very directly. Whether a Republican or a Democrat wins our next election in 2016, I’m probably going to be fine. As a relatively well-off straight white guy in America, I’m pretty insulated from the effects of our elections on my day-to-day life. The ups and downs will be felt most strongly by the people on the margins.

And most of that description of myself also applies to most of the people who actually run our elections. It’s easy for a strategist to lose whatever idealism led her to the job in the first place. After a few cycles, working for her candidate is all that matters. A loss is the worst outcome, setting her career back the next time around, outweighing whatever direct effects she might have felt from the policies her candidate would have set. And that’s if she’s even part of his constituency in the first place.

Our Brand Is Crisis pushes this message into the 2002 Bolivian election, where the entire country is on the margins. Bodine and Candy don’t ultimately care how their candidates will actually govern; to them, policy has become entirely divorced from politics. And Green draws us into this same trap, lulling us even through the reminders that Castillo is probably a terrible choice for Bolivia. Until, just in our moment of celebration on behalf of Sandra Bullock’s character, he slaps us rudely awake. This whole time, we’ve forgotten about what’s really at stake here, just as we can forget what’s really at stake in our own elections. Green ends his soothing lullaby with a harsh wake-up call we all need to hear.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace test: pass.


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