Our Brand is Crisis
Historically speaking, the United States' most successful export isn't walnuts or iPhones or Michael Bay movies. It's representative democracy.
When we first began what Alexander Hamilton called this "grand experiment," we were pretty much alone in the world. We had to make up the rules as we went along. Fast-forward about 240 years, and that one representative democracy has grown to 123, give or take—with loads of non-democracies pretending to be on board, too.
When an international politician needs an edge, he'll now look for help from the country that's been doing democracy longer and, arguably, better than anyone else. And if anyone knows how to win an election, it's the strategists, handlers and the other political animals of the United States—even if they get a little dirty doing it.
Pedro Castillo could use that edge. Sure, the Bolivian presidential candidate has political experience of his own. In fact, he used to be a president���one who was thrown out on his ear for being a big, jerky oligarch. Babies cry when he kisses them. Dogs growl when he pets them. It seems Castillo's only chance of getting back into the halls of government is by sneaking in with a group of touring schoolchildren.
But all is not wholly lost. His floundering campaign, filled with cagey American advisors, has now hired "Calamity" Jane Bodine—a high-powered political strategist coaxed out of retirement. Granted, Jane's suffered some embarrassing setbacks over the years, ranging from stints in rehab to sojourns in psych wards. She's been known to wreak as much havoc on her own campaigns as she does on her opponents'.
But there's a chance—a small one—that Jane can set Castillo's sinking ship on a course toward victory. She's done it before. And she's coming in with guns blazing since the campaign of Castillo's primary opponent, Victor Rivera, is headed by Pat Candy: Jane's political archnemesis.
For Jane, the election isn't so much about a Castillo victory or Bolivia's future. These politics are personal. And she'll stop at nothing to win.
It's hard to find a clear, un-slimed rooting interest in Our Brand Is Crisis, which gives us a mudpuppy's view of political mudslinging. But we do meet a young idealist named Eddie—a guy who volunteered for Castillo's campaign because he truly believes the man is just the leader Bolivia needs. He follows Castillo with a certain wide-eyed idealism, shaking off the abuse he takes from his more cynical brothers and the voting interests of his impoverished community. And when he discovers that Castillo might not be the man he imagined him to be, Eddie sticks with his ideals, not with the man.
Castillo is largely painted as a conservative straw man—a guy too connected to Bolivia's rich business interests to really understand or help its teeming poor. But in the course of the campaign, we also see that he's willing to at least engage with his critics, brave angry mobs and mourn a lack of connection with his wayward son. Even Jane flounders her way toward an epiphany or two, setting her sights on more idealistic work.
When Castillo's American handlers find Jane, it's at her secluded mountain hideaway, far from the political noise she had hoped to leave forever. Instead of crafting political strategies, she's been making pots—"medicine bowls" inspired by the area's Native American lineage. Jane says the bowls have protective powers that can ward off "evil spirits." Either that, she adds, or they just hold fruit. Nevertheless, she takes a bowl with her to Bolivia, sometimes clutching it tightly in times of crisis.
Rivera is shown praying in a Catholic church and calls his baby twins a double "blessing from God." A photograph is released that depicts Castillo visiting a cult ("Church of the Cosmic Wind") and draped in the cult's white robes. He goes on national television to dispel the notion that he belongs to the cult, which holds as one of its beliefs that people can fly. (When the interviewer asks if he believes he can fly, Castillo quips that a look at his poll numbers proves he can't.) Ben, another of Castillo's American advisors, says he once considered becoming a Buddhist monk. Jane reads the legend of Faust, which is about a man who sold his soul to the devil. Pat Candy notes that he's sometimes compared to Mephistopheles.
There's an insinuation that Pat and Jane had a sexual relationship in the past. And even if they didn't, Pat would sure like one now. Thus, we see him hit on her, make crude gestures, talk about masturbation and crudely reference female anatomy. Castillo also has a roving eye. He's known to have affairs (which he says his wife is fine with). He ogles a woman's backside. Jane moons a campaign bus. (We see her rear.)
A man leaps over a barricade and smashes an egg on Castillo's head. Castillo punches the man, and the two have to be pulled apart. (Castillo's other advisors at first suggest he apologize, but Jane overrules them: It begins Castillo's narrative as a "fighter.") Protestors pelt Castillo's campaign bus with rocks, breaking the windshield. Jane encourages, and eventually bribes, the bus driver to race another campaign bus along a high, dangerous mountain road. A beautiful llama, intended to be featured in one of Castillo's television spots, is hit by a car.
We hear about a past suicide, and there are half-jokes about committing it. It's mentioned that people died in protests against Castillo when he was president. We see police officers shoot teargas into a crowd and manhandle people.
Crude or Profane Language
Close to 25 f-words and more than 15 s-words. We hear "a--," "b--ch," "b--tard," "h---," "p---" and "balls." God's name is misused at least a dozen times, twice with "d--n." Jesus' name is abused a few times as well. Two guys flash their middle fingers.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Jane was a notorious drinker when she was a full-time political strategist. She gave up both drinking and smoking when she "retired," but quickly returns to both vices—smoking almost constantly, drinking regularly and getting flat-out plastered at least once.
Jane's not alone when she gets tanked. Most of the American campaign staff joins in the festivities, along with Eddie and his brothers. The result is a bout of destructive revelry. Elsewhere, whiskey, beer and champagne are imbibed. Pat and others smoke cigars.
Castillo makes a tearful reference to his son's drug problems. The daughter of one of Pat's candidates was apparently a cocaine addict.
Other Negative Elements
It seems obvious, but it's still worth stating here that Jane and Pat engage in a variety of underhanded—even illegal—political mechanizations.
A bra is turned into a slingshot. Filth is flung at Pat's door. Horeseplay results in a window getting broken. Jane, suffering from altitude sickness, vomits into a trash can.
Our Brand Is Crisis is very loosely based on a true story—the 2002 Bolivian presidential election when famed political strategist James Carville helped get Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada reelected to Bolivia's highest office. The real-life events did not have a happy ending: Bolivians tirelessly demonstrated against his rule, their discontent culminating in an October 2003 standoff between government troops and protestors. Sixty-seven people were killed. Lozada resigned and went into exile in the United States.
The film (directed by gross-out comedy aficionado David Gordon Green and co-produced by George Clooney) seems to want to make a political statement—though what that statement would be, exactly, seems a bit confused. It tosses around references to unfettered money in politics early on—suggesting that such easy cash helps fuel people like Jane and Pat. We're shown that those two are creatures from the darkest recesses of the political system, not averse to doing terrible things for terrible reasons for, potentially, terrible candidates. Indeed, with its multiple allusions to Faust, the movie seems to suggest that the mere agreement to work in politics is akin to selling one's soul.
"There's only one wrong," Jane insists. "Losing."
There are also acknowledgements that politics has always been a dirty business. References to past politicians, campaigns and underhanded stratagems drive that point home repeatedly. But as slimy as Jane is, the film seems to want us to like her. We're led to admire her political wiles even as she's being scolded for them. We're coaxed into applauding her duplicity on behalf of a candidate we're supposed to loathe. We almost have to like her because Pat Candy is, by comparison, so much more despicable.
So is this a critique of democracy itself, then? Or just a few bad apples in political barrel? Is it a plea for the world to wash its hands of Hamilton's "great experiment" and find ourselves a good, reliable monarch? Or would it stop short of that as it expresses exasperation over how voters are so easily duped by manipulative candidates and don't vote enough for the sorts of candidates the makers would like them—us—to vote for?
Perhaps it doesn't matter. Just as the movie tends to undercut its own arguments, it also burdens itself with foul language and sexual allusions, spoiling some pretty great performances from Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton. By the time the credits roll, Our Brand Is Crisis feels a lot like a badly run political campaign itself: crass, grimy and not sure of its own message.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Sandra Bullock as Jane; Billy Bob Thornton as Pat Candy; Anthony Mackie as Ben; Joaquim de Almeida as Castillo; Ann Dowd as Nell; Scoot McNairy as Buckley; Zoe Kazan as LeBlanc; Dominic Flores as Hugo; Reynaldo Pacheco as Eddie
David Gordon Green ( )
October 30, 2015
February 2, 2016