So, Hollywood, you say you want strong roles for women? How about an American campaign strategist who doesn’t hesitate to stand up to or stare down the candidate poised to become Bolivia’s next president? She’s not the next Erin Brockovich (it’s one thing to litigate carcinogens out of the local water supply and quite another to pump toxins into the system), but as played by Sandra Bullock, “Our Brand Is Crisis” political spin doctor Jane Bodine is easily one of the best female roles of the last 10 years — which makes it all the more satisfying to learn that it was originally written for “Gravity” co-star George Clooney. The movie itself is something more of a mess, though designedly so, fictionalizing the incursion of U.S. marketing tactics in the 2002 Bolivian election, first captured in Rachel Boynton’s documentary of the same name.
Ironically enough, the thing this David Gordon Green-directed smarthouse satire could use most is a good old campaign of its own (the awards-season kind, naturally) to raise its profile, especially given audiences’ typically allergic reaction to anything remotely political in theaters. Bullock certainly deserves the support, drawing upon her serious and comedic sides to create a character who might as well have been plucked directly from the world of studio filmmaking: Coffee-jittery and nicotine-deprived, Bodine embodies all the hallmarks of a distaff power agent or studio chief. With her aggressively styled hair, Hollywood shades and entitled attitude, she’s either intimidatingly fabulous or fabulously intimidating, but either way, others seem to shrink in her presence. If Bolivia were a dictatorship, she could be its Eva Peron.
To quote Winston Churchill, “It has been said that Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Over the roughly 200 years that popular elections have been in place in the United States, those seeking power have learned how to game the system, hiring strategists to help them legally manipulate the vote (though comedian/commentator Russell Brand claims they needn’t even bother, insisting that, “Every election in American history has been won by the party with the most money to campaign with”). Bodine thinks and speaks in such political parables, quoting everyone from Sun Tzu to Warren Beatty as she attempts to make her points.
Having either just suffered or narrowly avoided a nervous breakdown, Bodine is holed up in her cabin in the woods somewhere making clay pottery when a pair of campaign consultants (Anthony Mackie and Ann Dowd) knock on her door with a wild proposal: Given her Midas touch turning dead-meat political candidates into winners, would she consider flying down to Bolivia to help get ex-president Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida, so often cast as the non-white drug czar or villain) elected to office? Castillo is currently dangling in fifth place with just 8% support in the polls, but they’re convinced that Bodine can turn that around.
What they fail to mention is that the leading candidate, a well-coiffed man-of-the-people type named Rivera (Louis Arcella), has also hired his own strategist, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), a sneaky, chauvinistic manipulator who has won every campaign in which he and Bodine have competed. Thornton may as well be reprising his Southern-drawling “Primary Colors” role, considering that both characters were based on Bill Clinton campaign manager James Carville (the direct subject of Boynton’s documentary, whereas Bodine is a total invention). Candy may be a snake oil salesman of the highest order, but it’s Bodine who’s willing to sell her soul here, taking the job without bothering to learn Spanish or a thing about the candidate she’s representing. Her qualifications are simple: “It’s personal, and I’m pissed,” she tells Castillo.
In Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s new Brian De Palma documentary, the director tells a story about how Columbia exec Dawn Steel flew to the set in Thailand, took one look and caught the next plane home. That’s the sort of character Bullock seems to be channeling here: She wields the power, but is also susceptible to the elements, hit with altitude sickness and forced to drag around an oxygen tank from the moment she lands in Bolivia. It’s a performance that depends just as much on body language as it does old-fashioned pratfalls (slippery staircases and collapsing folding chairs), though the pleasure comes in watching how Bodine’s mind works: At times, she clearly doesn’t have a clue how to improve the situation, but when the ideas start to flood, she’s a force to be reckoned with — every bit a match for “Wag the Dog’s” string-pullers or “In the Loop’s” Peter Capaldi.
While TV viewers are spoiled these days by “Veep” showrunner Armando Iannucci’s rapid-fire brand of political satire, “Our Brand Is Crisis” screenwriter Peter Straughan (“The Men Who Stare at Goats,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) is just about the next best thing moviegoers can find. This particular screenplay proves a bit light on actual dialogue, relying instead on a litany of chestnuts cribbed from “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations,” as Bodine and Candy both recycle their all-time favorite politically themed zingers. Even so, Straughan’s a whiz when it comes to inventing outrageous confrontations, including a post-debate rotten-egging that inspires Bodine’s crisis-peddling strategy and a cliffside game of chicken between rival campaign buses.
By sticking to the half-true details of an actual election (in reality, Carville’s candidate won), Green and company put an artificial ceiling on the pic’s satirical potential. Had they fictionalized the country, “Crisis” could have joined the ranks of “Duck Soup” or “The Mouse That Roared.” Instead, we find ourselves wondering why we should care about a rigged banana-republic election when they could have taken on the electoral system back home — except that things work virtually the same way in the States, making Bolivia a synecdoche for a more systemic problem with democracy.
Apart from a few amusing detours, the critique builds exactly as one might expect, with Green (who delivers his most professional work since “Pineapple Express”) overreaching somewhat in the final stretch as he attempts to tie things up with a “Medium Cool”-style moral commentary in which the ultra-cynical Bodine suddenly decides to grow a conscience. “In politics, perception matters,” the end credits advise, and for Bullock’s offscreen campaign to register, one supposes she had to find her soul.
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