Our Brand is Crisis ambitiously attempts to balance political satire, character drama, and comedy, and the results are decidedly mixed. Yes, there’s fun to be had here watching Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton’s characters match wits as rival political strategists on opposite sides of a heated presidential election, pulling one underhanded, manipulative move after the next to undermine one another and deliver their candidates the election. But the film’s characters feel entirely too stock, and as a whole the plot’s progression is far too predictable — you know more or less where the film is going from start to finish, which robs it of any meaningful impact. Is it terrible? No. But the talent involved here is capable of far better.
Bullock plays Jane Bodine, who at the start of the film has voluntarily retired from her one-time rock star career as a highly sought-after political campaign consultant. Despite her having been away from the game for six years, she finds herself courted by an American management team in the employ of Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), a Bolivian presidential candidate badly lagging in the nation’s polls, hoping her insight and tactics can help them turn the election around. Unimpressed by the challenge, Jane only agrees to join the team once she learns that her old professional nemesis, Pat Candy (Thornton), who ran the opposition during her last disastrous campaign, the one that sent her into self-imposed exile and in which she earned the nickname “Calamity Jane”, is in Bolivia as a consultant to the current front-runner’s campaign.
Once in country, Jane finds herself equally unimpressed by Castillo, who with his wealth, power, and spotty history in the nation’s politics seems ill-equipped to appeal to an electorate clamoring for populist polices such as wealth redistribution and more balanced ethnic representation in the government. It’s only when Candy, all soft-spoken smarm and sly innuendo, starts going out of his way to psyche her out that she wakes up and gets in the game, declaring to Castillo and the team that they’re at war and that its time they get their hands dirty.
Jane’s tactics, which include negative TV attack and print ads, leaked misinformation to parties both in and out of the country with interests in the election’s outcome, and even outright sabotage of the front-runner’s campaign events, are all plays that come straight from the same playbook that Candy’s tactics do. They’re sneaky, manipulative, and borderline illegal, but they’re effective, and soon they start getting results. But even as Castillo’s poll numbers climb and Jane sees Candy and his client start to sweat, something still doesn’t feel right. She feels it the most when she looks at Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco), a young volunteer in Castillo’s campaign office, who sees none of what Jane sees in their candidate and fully believes in him as someone who can truly lead the nation to prosperity. For Eddie, it’s about faith in Castillo and hope for his people, while for Jane it’s about beating Candy, no matter what that may mean for the people who have to live with Castillo as their president. Or, at least, that’s what it would have been all about for Jane before “Calamity.” Now, in the wake of past failures and seeing in Candy’s work the things she’s come to hate about herself? Maybe it might become about something else for Jane, after all.
Our Brand is Crisis is actually a remake of sorts — the film’s fictional characters and plot were “suggested by” a 2005 documentary of the same name which covered the participation of American political strategists in a real-life Bolivian presidential campaigns during an election in 2002. But even if that weren’t the case, and this new film as it is was a wholly original political satire, its themes and elements of satire would certainly still feel familiar to American audiences. After all, the power of focus group-influenced advertising, smear campaigns, negativity, misinformation, the dastardly lengths political image consultants will go to in order to make at times the most unlikable politicians likable, or at least simply electable, is certainly nothing 21st Century America hasn’t seen before. Thus, the tactics employed by Jane Bodine and Pat Candy in this film, while occasionally subversively funny in and of themselves, aren’t likely to take anyone by surprise. It’s just American politics as usual, just put into practice in arguably the worst possible place, a nation on the brink of revolution and desperately in need of fundamental change.
It falls then to the leads to give audiences something worth their while, something nuance and depth to the characters at the heart of Our Brand is Crisis to make the film a worthwhile experience, and here they’re only partly successful because they’re hamstrung by a thin script. For her part, Bullock gives it her all, projecting vulnerability, self-loathing, and fragility even when Jane’s calling the shots and doing what she does best. The haunted look in her eyes is reminiscent of what she gave us in Gravity, and it draws you in, even if you can sense the direction in which her character arc is heading. Thornton does his best with what he’s given, and as Candy he’s a likable presence sparring with Jane, even when what Candy’s doing and saying is downright awful. But unfortunately he, like all the other supporting players here such as Anthony Mackie (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron), Scoot McNairy (Gone Girl, Argo), and Joaquim de Almeida (Fast Five, Desperado), is tasked with working with what is essentially a one-note character. Their sole function, though they accomplish it in different ways, seems to be to serve as foils to Jane. That they do, but that’s not enough to make them interesting or compelling.
As for the “comedy” in Our Brand is Crisis, it’s few and far between, and a great deal of it either springs from the aforementioned political satire or the pranks and mind games Jane and Candy play on and with one another in the course of the campaign. It’s in the sequences involving the pranks that Bullock, always so good with physical comedy on the occasions she’s had to run with it, manages to inject some maniac fun into the otherwise super-serious proceedings. Watch for a particularly fun scene involving an impromptu bus race along a narrow mountain road that’s almost as scary as it is funny. The only way it could have been more entertaining was if Bullock had reached back to her Speed days and taken the wheel herself. It’s too bad there wasn’t more of this type of material in the film — yes, it may have dulled the impact of the film’s satire or further muddied its tone, but then again, it might have helped by adding an element of the unexpected to balance out the otherwise “been there, seen that” feel of the political and personal dramas that make up the balance of the running time.
Our Brand is Crisis
Starring Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Joaquim de Almeida, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, Zoe Kazan, and Raynaldo Pacheco. Directed by David Gordon Green.
Running Time: 107 minutes
Rated R for language including some sexual references.