From the Archives: Our Brand is Crisis

Originally posted 2015 | Review by Sarah Cullen

Recognising that their current campaign strategy for their client is failing, political consultant ‘Calamity’ Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) decides that it is time to change tactics. Instead of changing the man to suit the narrative, they are going to change the narrative to suit. You don’t need to know a lot about politics to question whether this idea is “brilliant,” as one of Bodine’s colleagues mutters in a reverential tone, or is it in fact political consultancy 101? Is this really the first time any of them have thought of such a strategy, or is coming up with jargon like that the easiest part of a much larger job?

Directed by David Gordon Green and based on the 2005 English and Spanish language documentary of the same name, Our Brand Is Crisis follows Sandra Bullock’s Jane Bodine when she is convinced to come out of retirement by two fellow political consultants (Anthony Mackie and Ann Dowd). She has been selected to spearhead a campaign for the 2002 Bolivian presidential elections. As her career up to this point has been relatively unsuccessful the reality is that she is expected to be the fall guy; her candidate is unlikeable underdog Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), a rich businessman who is seen as out of touch with the common man. Although she is initially reluctant to assume a large role in the proceedings, she is soon spurred on when she discovers that she is once again in competition with her long-time rival, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), who is a campaign strategist for the opposition.

Our Brand Is Crisis is hard to view as a political film, mainly because it doesn’t have anything meaningful to say about politics. As demonstrated above, the talk going on behind the scenes is no more sincere or any less inane than what is said in front of the cameras. The phrase “International Monetary Fund” is bandied about as though this will lend the situation the weight it deserves. The people of Bolivia themselves hardly feature beyond Castillo himself and Eduardo (Reynaldo Pacheco) an inconceivably naïve young intern (the words “lamb” and “slaughter” spring to mind here). On the whole it appears that Bolivia is populated by angry mobs and impressionable orphans whose sole function is to facilitate the North Americans in learning some very special lessons about the Third World. On a more positive note, cinematographer Tim Orr does some admirable work in shooting crowd scenes, particularly in the second half of the film, which suggest that there may perhaps have been a better movie actually representing Bolivia going on somewhere beneath the whitewashed screenplay.

Our Brand Is Crisis also underperforms on the comedic front. David Gordon Green, so clearly at home with comedy like Pineapple Express and Eastbound & Down tries desperately to inject a sense of irreverential humour into the films proceedings. There is the occasional successful joke, the scene in which Bodine’s campaign bus makes a drastic and insane attempt to overtake Candy’s bus on a dangerous cliff road is entertaining and serves as an extended metaphor for the film in various ways – but sadly the majority of the jokes flounder.

Our Brand is Crisis is about A-List actors far more than it will ever be about the struggles of a developing nation

Bullock and Thornton unquestionably steal the show with their spirited back-and-forth, but Green’s concentration on the enmity between Bodine and Candy (much of which would be at home in a rom com) all but blurs the focus of the movie making it uncomfortably clear that Our Brand is Crisis is about A-List actors far more than it will ever be about the struggles of a developing nation.  

Ultimately it’s a film about a privileged white person. We watch Bodine struggle with her inner demons, namely altitude sickness and an aversion to natives. We are expected to cheer when she one-ups Candy and gasp when we learn about her terrible back story. The epilogue reminds us that this has been a white saviour narrative all along, no matter what a late about-face in the narrative might have us momentarily believe. What could be an enlightening political satire is an ego-massaging session for a group of privileged North Americans.


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