Politics and idealism don’t mix. At all. Our Brand is Crisis knows this, but still attempts to provide a sliver of hope for the idealists, in spite of a story that skews more for satire. It’s an odd blend of different goals in director David Gordon Green’s fictionalized take on a 2005 documentary of the same name, and one that the film has trouble pulling together, in spite of a strong effort by Sandra Bullock.
Bullock stars as “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a former political strategist whose issues with substance abuse and the emotional toll of campaigning forced her into early retirement. It’s a place where she acknowledges that she’s at least calm, if not happy. When two American strategists from a bottom-tier Bolivian presidential candidate manage to grab her interest, though, she flies down to the country to see if she should come out of retirement. What convinces her to join is the presence of the frontrunner’s political consultant, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), long her toughest competition. Jane quickly realizes that her candidate, Senator Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) can’t win the election by trying to be likable, so she pushes the campaign to promote the idea that Bolivia is in a “crisis,” and as a former president of the country, he’s the nation’s only salvation. Once her ideas begin to work, Jane begins to take specific aim at Candy.
That target is important. Jane doesn’t really care much for either Castillo or Bolivia. Her goal is to beat Candy, something she hasn’t done before, and she’ll do whatever it takes to beat him. This turns the election from focusing on issues to cheap political stunts and innuendo. As far as promoting their candidate, Jane and her people do an exceptional job. But as Castillo rises in the polls, Jane’s cynicism and outrageous behavior also rises.
It’s a good thing Bullock was cast as Jane, because her performance manages to smooth over most of the problems the film has when it comes to the character. The film is structured in a way that tries to support Jane when her behavior is both admirable and appalling. There’s a giddiness to Jane’s professional success in the film that fails to connect those behaviors with the fact that they aren’t healthy for her. When the film finally does try to address her coming to terms with the repercussions of her actions at the end, there’s a sense of overcompensation to try and make it work with what came before.
That’s where Bullock’s casting comes in. She manages to add to Jane a sense of weariness that makes the character one worth watching. Even if the end fails to land where it aimed, Bullock has the chops to at least get it closer to the target in the first place. She’s helped by a strong supporting cast, none of whom get a chance to really stand out, but do give Bullock plenty of people to bounce off of throughout the film.
But the film’s heavy-handed approach finds other ways of marring the film. Among the volunteers for Castillo is Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco), who blindly supports Castillo because his father was an avid supporter of Castillo during his previous stint in office. Eddie was held by Castillo at one point as a child, and he has the framed photo to prove it. It’s obvious that Eddie will lose faith in Castillo at some point, but the way it happens comes during the sort of timed coincidence that only happens in a movie.
There are parts of Our Brand is Crisis that work. At its best, it fully acknowledges the state of politics in both America and the world, with all the cynicism that entails. The problem is that the film wants an ending that’s more comforting than a truly cynical film would allow. By trying to make things better at the last minute, Jane is “redeemed” in a way that not only isn’t necessary, but also weakens everything that came before. A cynical ending would have been more in keeping with the film, and more interesting.