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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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