Election campaigns are not about politics. They are about how effectively the public’s perception can be twisted toward or against a certain candidate.
It’s the same approach used in making a movie.
The job of a movie writer and director is to take a subject and manipulate how it’s presented to make an audience laugh, cry, get mad or be blown away. Failure to do that gets a negative vote from moviegoers.
The effort by “Our Brand Is Crisis” director David Gordon Green and writer Peter Straughan to turn the 2005 documentary of the same name into a light comedy with touches of romance and political high jinks leaves the fictional version a poor candidate in the box office race.
The documentary looked at the 2002 Bolivian presidential election, which through some fancy political maneuvering by the Greenberg Carville Shrum campaign strategists resulted in the surprise election of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada over Evo Morales.
There is no way the drama of the real election could be surpassed – or even matched – by a fictionalized accounting. Green and Straughan’s efforts do nothing more than water down the story.
Taking on the role of the political strategist in the fictionalized version (James Carville was involved in the real election) is Sandra Bullock. Her character, nicknamed “Calamity” Jane Bodine, has a sharp mind for winning political campaigns as long as she can deal with her bouts of alcohol abuse and depression.
She’s called in to help a struggling candidate in the Bolivian presidential race. He’s so far back in the polling that only a miracle could help him win. Bodine performs the miracle by taking the approach that the country is in crisis and only a seasoned politician can face the challenges ahead. Toss in some leaked press stories, false news tips and assorted other underhanded efforts, and the race begins to tighten.
Had the focus been on the race and the political battles, the movie would have tracked better. Instead, we get slapstick, like seeing Bodine throwing up because of altitude sickness (is that funny to anyone?); hints of romance between Bodine and Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), her counterpart on the opposing campaign; and a weird montage of Bodine’s drunken night. There’s even an attempt to milk a laugh out of a llama being killed.
Bullock does a good job of giving some life to Bodine, as does Zoe Kazan as a mysterious researcher. But the rest of the supporting players are forgettable. Bullock’s character was originally written with George Clooney in mind. He would have brought a more dry humor to the role. But faced with the same obstacles as Bullock, it’s doubtful he could have done any better.
Straughan’s screenplay is just too disjointed. His idea of a big political showdown is to have the opposing campaign buses race along a dangerous road. It’s not exciting, funny or important to the story.
That time could have been used to create a better story structure. He could have expanded on the suggested behind-the-scenes efforts by authorities in the United States to get their candidate to win. A closer look at the players in this political chess match would have put the comic elements more in context.
As it is, “Our Brand Is Crisis” is like a third-party candidate who enters too late. His or her good qualities remain hidden and the candidate gets lost in the pack no matter how much manipulation is happening.
Our Brand Is Crisis
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Zoe Kazan
Director: David Gordon Green
Rated R (sexual references, language)