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Our Brand Is Crisis

A battle-hardened American political consultant is sent to help re-elect a controversial president in Bolivia, where she must compete with a long-term rival working for another candidate.


In 2002, Bolivian politician Pedro Gallo hires American James Carville's political consulting firm, Greenberg Carville Shrum, to help him win the 2002 Bolivian presidential election. GCS brings in Jane Bodine to manage the campaign in Bolivia. Battling her arch nemesis, the opposition's political consultant Pat Candy, Bodine successfully uses American political campaign strategies to lead Gallo to victory against Victor Rivera

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There are many reasons to choose to watch a particular movie: To experience an interesting story or to have an interesting experience. To learn something you never knew or to imagine something that you never would have contemplated on your own. To temporarily escape your ordinary situation or to be temporarily transported into an extraordinary situation for the sheer joy of it. To marvel at the skill of a performer, screenwriter, director, cinematographer, editor or other person who makes movie magic, or to dream that you might be able to place your skills on display for all to see and enjoy. To have fun, to be inspired, to expand your world, or simply to feel. When a film does even some of these things well, we call it "entertaining". When a film fails to do any of them, or to just partially accomplish them, we call it disappointing. By that definition, the 2015 comedy-drama "Our Brand is Crisis" (R, 1:47) is disappointing.

The movie's plot is very loosely based on the 2005 documentary which itself is based on the 2002 presidential election campaign in Bolivia. In the real life story and in the documentary, conservative presidential candidate and former president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada hired the American political consulting firm Greenberg Carville Shrum (GCS) to bring some American-style political skill to Central America, help him defeat democratic socialist Evo Morales and return Lozada to the highest office in his land. I have to point out that the key phrase in the first sentence of this paragraph is "very loosely".

The feature film version of "Our Brand is Crisis" has American political strategist Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) brought to Bolivia to head the political team helping conservative presidential candidate and former president Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida). Bodine's team includes Ben (Anthony Mackie), Nell (Ann Dowd) and LeBlanc (Zoe Kazan), a young woman whose talent is investigating the backgrounds of political candidates. Helped out by an idealistic young local volunteer named Eduardo (Reynaldo Pacheco), this is the team that is trying to bring down the campaign's front-runner, leftist candidate Victor Rivera (Louis Arcella), who is being managed by another American-for-hire, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), to whom Jane has lost the last few campaigns that she ran.

Jane's nickname in political circles is "Calamity Jane". She's considered one of the best in the business, but hasn't shown it lately. She has achieved some remarkable victories as a strategist, but messed up her most recent campaigns and, as the story begins, is living alone in the middle of nowhere making clay bowls that she believes have spiritual properties. Besides having been a "calamity" on her most recent jobs as a campaign manager, she also has a history of substance abuse and depression, and an annoying habit of frequently quoting long-dead politicians and political thinkers when she talks about strategy.

Jane gets a bit of a slow start as Castillo's campaign manager. When she arrives in La Paz, Bolivia, she has a serious bout with altitude sickness. As she gets to know Castillo, her initial impressions are that he is not likable and "not a winner". Eventually (after some encounters with the smarmy Candy on the campaign trail), Jane gets her sea legs and finally starts coming up with ideas. She convinces everyone that what their candidate needs to do is convince the country that it's in trouble and that Castillo is the best solution. "Our brand," she explains, "what we're selling… is crisis." Using her knowledge of Candy's tactics and her long experience in politics, she comes up with a combination of strategies and dirty tricks that result in Castillo starting to climb in the polls. Meanwhile, Candy is trying to get inside Jane's head, to rattle her, and is able to make sure that some of her tactics backfire. But that's okay. She does the same to him. The ensuing battle royale between the two campaigns is desperate, messy – and personal.

"Our Brand is Crisis" tries to do a little bit of everything, but ends up actually accomplishing a lot of nothing. Bullock and Thornton's performances are solid, but uninspired, much like those of the rest of the cast. Calling this film a comedy-drama is a bit of a stretch because the script contains relatively few jokes and those we get aren't very funny. The director utilizes Bullock's talent for physical comedy, but does so only in a handful of brief moments and half-heartedly at that. Even a marginally funny scene in which Jane gets drunk and mischievous with her staff and three young Bolivian locals is underplayed.
The plot is "inspired by" a true story, but changes so much of that story, it might as well be considered wholly a work of fiction. The documentary on which the film is based has been described as "a cautionary tale" about politics, but it's tough to know whether we're supposed to learn from the things in this script that did happen or take seriously the parts that the filmmakers made up and learn from all that. And what are we to learn? That politics is a dirty business? I think most of us knew that already. That negative campaigning and dirty tricks work? Ditto. That every country's electorate is too unsophisticated to understand what's really going on? Insulting, but seemingly what this film is saying. When a movie paints a negative picture of everything that it is portraying, confuses the audience about what's real and what's not, and makes its hero's behavior almost as bad as everyone else's, it has failed to give us what we go to the movies to see. Such a movie can best be described as disappointing. "C-"


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