Film and TV

Sandra Bullock Embraces the Political Dark Side in Our Brand Is Crisis

David Gordon Green’s Our Brand Is Crisis is a horror film wrapped in fast-talking political comedy. Watching Sandra Bullock, as ruthless campaign manager Jane, flog her uncharismatic candidate for Bolivia’s next president, I snickered at her knowing quips. Asked by an off-screen TV interviewer (the film’s awkward framing device) to name her inspiration, Jane jokes, “When I started in this business, my heroes were politicians and leaders. Then I met them.” But then the film ends and the laughter fades. A chill sets in. For two hours, we’ve liked Bullock and her team — cheered their successes, even. Yet they are the world’s bogeymen...and the nightmare is real.

Jane’s character is inspired by real-life wonk James Carville (a hero to some), who as a partner in the strategist firm Greenberg Carville Shrum flew to Bolivia in 2002 to elect Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada over his progressive opposition, Evo Morales. (That story was told in Rachel Boynton’s 2005 doc of the same name; Green and screenwriter Peter Straughan have made their version unsuably fictionalish.) If it’s surprising that Carville, the grinning grandpa of American liberals, would fly south of the equator to sell a man who represents everything he shuns at home, that’s the point. Jane cares nothing about the platform of Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), her candidate. Like a defense attorney, there are evils she’d rather not hear. She’s in La Paz for two reasons: the paycheck, and the chance to defeat rival election genius Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), already there and gloating over his man’s 28-point lead in the polls.

Thornton’s Pat is a Carville clone. He’s all skull and jaw and deep-fried accent, which he employs for foul attempts to rattle Jane’s composure. Cozying up to her at a debate, he whispers, “When I get home, I’m going to spend hours pleasuring myself thinking of you.” Jane wouldn’t ever cry sexual harassment; she sees herself as a sexless warrior. The film’s strongest impression, though, is of her and Pat — mercenaries, really — who cross the globe looking for a fight. Bolivia matters today, but tomorrow it’s off to Israel. As for the Bolivians, they don’t matter at all.

Green also has a weakness for seeing the locals as a gullible herd prone to throwing rocks, doting over llamas, and undermining their own political credibility. He occasionally missteps, but he’s trying to show us the Bolivians as Jane’s team sees them — i.e., as fools. As Scoot McNairy, a co-strategist along with Anthony Mackie and Ann Dowd, notes of the country’s many rural voters, winning them over will be like if an American candidate had to sway 200 million Apaches.

A few rise above the rabble: Young intern Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco) and his eye-rolling, heavy-drinking apolitical friends; a countryside academic who demands that Castillo decry the IMF; a man at a focus group who groans at their latest campaign commercial of a sobbing Bolivian child. And there’s de Almeida’s Castillo — a performance worthy of a supporting-actor campaign — whose prim pride is jackhammered away as Jane rebrands him as a pit bull.

Green also spins the camera around to show how the Bolivians see these Yankees: as bossy, patronizing giants who can’t even be bothered to learn Spanish. After an impassioned Big Movie Speech to two dozen volunteers, Jane asks how many people understood her English. A few raise their hands. “Translate,” she shrugs, and clomps away. The role needs Bullock, America’s switchblade sweetheart, to succeed, and she gives it all of her sharp ambition and sympathetic brown eyes. She can’t quite make Jane human — the script doesn’t give her enough for that — but she shows us the physical cost for her, too.

Our Brand Is Crisis is so cynical that even the likable scenes turn loathsome. But this brisk, brittle comedy burns with ideas it needs us to witness: that Americans are still upending countries just as the anti-communist CIA did last century, and that, even worse, we don’t even do it for a political point. Say what you will about our elections, but at least our operatives have to live where they work.
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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications — the Village Voice, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly. Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.