Our Brand Is Crisis (David Gordon Green, 2015)
Though politics is always crooked, there are some genuinely good things in Our Brand Is Crisis, the new film from David Gordon Green, a director who, with films as varied as Pineapple Express and Joe, has demonstrated a remarkable ability to shift between absurdist comedy and gritty drama with nary a beat missed. Here, working off a script by Peter Straughan (Frank) – adapted from the 2005 documentary of the same title, by Rachel Boynton – he tackles a little bit of both genres. This is sometimes successful, and sometimes not. Fortunately, he has cast his film well. Count Sandra Bullock (Gravity) and Joaquim de Almeida (The Gilded Cage), as political consultant and political client, as among the stuff that works. If the film is ultimately a mixed bad, it is no fault of their own.
Bullock plays Jane – that’s “Calamity Jane,” a moniker earned from her years doing dirty work on political campaigns. She’s a seasoned operative, who when the film begins has been 6 years out of the game, having eventually succumbed to depression, substance abuse and disaffection. Ensconced in a mountain cabin, surrounded by nature, she’s made a new life for herself, though one that is apparently not so blissful that she doesn’t respond to the pitch made by former colleague Nell (Ann Dowd, Compliance). Nell shows up one day with a new colleague of hers, Ben (Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker), to invite Jane to Bolivia, where the presidential candidate they represent is trailing badly in the polls. Their guy is actually the former leader, whose rule was marked by bloody popular protests, and his chances seem slim. So why not bring in the seasoned pro with a reputation for rough play and the ability to get the job done?
So down they all go, where we meet other members of the team, including Buckley (Monsters), the very odd LeBlanc (Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks), and the candidate, himself, Castillo (de Almeida). There’s also Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco, The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez), an idealistic young Bolivian who works for the campaign because his working-class father loved Castillo when he was president the first time. Finally, Jane’s longtime rival, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, “Fargo,” in full James Carville mode) shows up, and the cast is complete. Once Jane gets used to the lack of oxygen in La Paz (it’s the highest capital in the world), she girds herself for battle and kicks the campaign into high gear. It’s a whole new game.
Which is all for the good, and Bullock is a joy to watch, as are, occasionally, some of her supporting players, de Almeida, especially. Unfortunately, what doesn’t always work so well is the script. Filled with self-evident truths spoken, without irony, about the state of politics, the movie trumpets its revelations about campaigns as if it’s breaking new ground. But this is well-trod territory. In addition to this movie’s source material, we’ve heard and seen the same cynical facts in films from The Candidate to Wag the Dog (to name just two) and beyond. So, there’s nothing new here – other than geography, which adds variety, for sure – and the obviousness of the dialogue is not helped by the fact that it’s spoken out loud, rather than inferred. Sometimes, subtext is more powerful than text.
One of the most interesting aspects of the movie, for me, is the fact that the producers agreed to flip the gender of the main character. In real life, it was James Carville who worked for the former dictator. Bullock, however, is a big enough star that she can make a request for a tailor-made role and have someone listen. And since she (along with de Almeida) is the best part of the film, then we should all be grateful that she commands that clout. As for the writer, I would recommend that he do one more pass on his screenplay, and then ask for reshoots.