[This is a re-post of my review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. Our Brand Is Crisis opens tomorrow.]
Politics takes to cynicism like shit to a cesspool. The more you understand politics, the more it obliterates idealism and eventually all you see is a rigged game masquerading as a grand-scale optimism. And yet in David Gordon Green’s tale of political fixers, Our Brand Is Crisis, he wants to find hope. He wants to find triumph in a tale that should be satiric at best and depressing at worst. Although the movie has flashes where everything comes together and we can revel in dark victories, more often than not, star Sandra Bullock is left to carry the crushing emotional and thematic weight of a confused picture that acknowledges that politics is a cheap joke, and then expects us all to laugh.
“Calamity” Jane Bodine (Bullock) was a vaunted political strategist, but the emotional toll of the campaigns coupled with substance abuse problems forced her into early retirement where she may not be happy, but she’s grateful that she’s calm. However, when two strategists for a struggling Bolivian presidential campaign pique her interest, she goes down to the South American country to see if she should get back in the fight. She’s convinced to step up when she discovers the front-runner has hired consultant Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), her arch-nemesis. Realizing that her candidate, Senator Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) can’t win by being likable, they decide to use fear as their issue, sell that Bolivia is a nation in “crisis”, and he’s the only many that can save it. From there, Jane uses every trick at her disposal to try and beat Candy.
I say, “beat Candy” because Jane doesn’t really care that much about Castillo or Bolivia. She cares about winning, and the movie reinforces the narrative that politics is just a game. It’s a game that has a real impact on people’s lives, but a game nonetheless. Policy doesn’t even enter into the conversation; it’s more about scoring points by making your opponent look like a Nazi sympathizer simply by virtue of a doctored photograph. The way Jane and her team approaches politics makes them good at their job, but it also makes them cynical people, and the movie rarely questions their behavior until the very end when it does so in the most heavy-handed manner possible.
Green’s last three pictures—Prince Avalanche, Joe, and Manglehorn—felt like personal indie films, and Our Brand Is Crisis seems like an attempt to reach back into the mainstream with a mix of comedy and pathos, and yet it also comes off like a journeyman feature. The emotional investment Green wants to make in Jane feels misplaced, especially since he also wants to celebrate moments when she behaves abhorrently. He can’t reconcile that her success also makes her a bad person. We get on Jane’s adrenaline kick when she wins, but the movie rarely questions the deeper ramifications of her actions.
Thankfully, we’re usually too wrapped up in Bullock’s great performance to mind the film’s cognitive dissonance. Although this is yet another nice white lady who benevolently comes to the aid of a non-white young person (in the case of Our Brand Is Crisis, it’s a campaign intern who idolizes Castillo), Bullock shows a lot more shading here than in The Blind Side. Jane is a broken prizefighter who has been called into the ring for one last round. While it would have been nice if the supporting characters were just as well developed (Candy’s entire purpose seems to be to enter a scene, taunt Jane, and then leave), Jane is a compelling figure, and it’s unfortunate that the film doesn’t match her complexity.
In its best moments, Our Brand Is Crisis is reminiscent of Wag the Dog; it knows how fucked politics is and acts accordingly. But the fact that it wants to also squeeze in a redemptive tale is completely at odds with the work the protagonist is doing. There’s no redemption to be found with the people who are ruining lives—who have no belief in politicians or voters; people who have basically given up on humanity and play with public policy like a kid with a loaded gun. Our Brand Is Crisis still could have been an excellent tale, but told through a soft prism of second chances and good intentions, we can’t buy what Green is selling.