In the most basic terms, any political campaign is an exercise in marketing. Every election, regardless of its geography or scale, is a painstaking branding process where candidates, like cereal or potato chips, are wrapped in attractive packaging and sold via punchy aspirations of leading a government. In his political satirical drama Our Brand is Crisis, David Gordon Green delivers this not-so-shocking piece of information in a fairly sharp and entertaining way, even as occasional tonal shifts and prolonged situational segments of the story get in his way.
Written by Peter Straughan, Our Brand is Crisis is loosely adapted from Rachel Boynton’s incisive 2005 documentary with the same title, and shows how USA’s world-class proficiency in launching and reinstating brands reaches beyond “buying the world a Coke” or convincing the entire planet that food at McDonald’s is safely edible. Turns out, strategic experts in US politics routinely get hired overseas (mostly in South America and the Middle East) to help political candidates collect votes and points even when they don’t agree with their respective race horse’s politics. (Speaking from personal experience, irresponsible disconnects between products and their marketers happen at ad agencies all the time, too.)
Thanks largely to an electric performance by Sandra Bullock in a surprisingly demanding role, the film tells one such story with adequate smarts. We’re introduced to Jane Bodine (nicknamed “Calamity Jane”) in the opening moments with a series of TV interviews that include sound bites worth that clue us into Jane’s personality and approach to work. She says her personal heroes used to be leaders and politicians once upon a time. But then she met them. Having isolated herself after a professional mishap, Jane receives a visit from her ex co-worker Bell (Ann Dowd) and her partner Ben (Anthony Mackie), a duo hired by the conservative candidate Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) in the upcoming Bolivian elections. With the classic one-last-job framing device used to bring the washed-up out of retirement, which is usually reserved for male cops or outlaw characters in mainstream cinema, the financially troubled Jane accepts the challenge. After struggling with severe altitude sickness in La Paz (a painfully stretched out situation with ineffective comedic milking) and aimlessly quoting everyone from Machiavelli to Warren Beatty, we watch her finding her sea legs again in order to sell her candidate.
She has a revelation when an angry protester cracks an egg on Castillo’s head and gets punched by him. Jane understands that any society facing relentless economic hardship can be convinced by fear and strength (instead of likability) to vote for a conservative. Meanwhile, her biggest challenge proves to be Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), a fellow ruthless strategist running the campaign for Castillo’s fiercest opponent. We get plenty of opportunities to watch the rivals ferociously outsmart each other, with subtle yet sadly unexplored sparks of contemporary screwball buried within verbal exchanges and comedic circumstances.
The film finds new blood when LeBlanc (the splendid Zoe Kazan, just as scathingly tongued and sharply dressed as Jane) enters the picture as a key figure in the Castillo campaign strategy. Yet, it loses steam just as fast during certain scenes in which Jane and Pat delve too deep into their mutual pasts, slowing down the otherwise steady action. In its finest moments—for instance, when Castillo realizes his goofy campaign of catching a child falling from the sky doesn’t work—Our Brand is Crisis brings to mind Pablo Larrain’s brilliant Chilean political drama No, in that it frames how a well-ran advertising campaign could translate into a political victory (regardless of the footing of the ideals) and how that might work vice-versa. But in the end, the high-minded proposition in Our Brand is Crisis becomes too self-congratulatory in its bigger statement about Jane’s individual change of heart than the deplorable nature of her business that sells liars as saviors.