TIFF 2015 Review | ‘Our Brand Is Crisis’ Slings Mud, Gets Muddied

Wouldn’t it be great if people stopped doing bad things, and if it were always entirely clear what the right thing and what the wrong thing to do are? Those are the juvenile fantasies at play in the crudely idealistic Our Brand is Crisis, a character study of a hyper-competitive political strategist named Calamity Jane (Sandra Bullock) and a dramatized exposé of the international damage Jane’s real-life counterparts cause by winning elections for their politico clients. 

“Suggested” by Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same name, about the maneuvering of a Bolivian presidential election toward the one-percenters’ candidate, David Gordon Green’s boisterous but hollow election drama offers an ultra-cynical take on political campaigns as a series of mass manipulations. “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal,” declares Jane. The film is certainly convincing in its portrait of each election as just another round in years-long rivalries between strategists with memories like elephants and claws like grizzly bears. But there’s nearly no stakes in watching two skilled but reprehensible fighters dragging each other down further into the mud.  

After losing her last four elections, Jane is recruited out of unofficial retirement by a pair of political tacticians (Ann Dowd and Anthony Mackie) working for Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), Bolivia’s candidate of choice for the wealthy, light-skinned elite. (“The gringo sticking it to the Indians,” sums up Jane.) An unpopular former president who unironically uses Nixon’s two-finger wave, Castillo pollsfar behind charismatic indigenous reformer Rivera (Louis Arcella), who’s created a man-of-the-people platform with the help of his own American strategist, Pat Candy (a bald Billy Bob Thornton meant to evoke James Carville). Convinced her guy is a born loser (despite his earlier presidential victory), Jane is happy to pratfall and vomit through her altitude sickness in South America until Pat rekindles their long-running enmity.  

The haphazardly structured plot finds Jane and her colleagues (which include Scoot McNairy and Zoe Kazan for some reason) squaring off against Candy. Other than a cliff-side bus race in which Calamity Jane earns her nickname through advice like “Don’t be safe!,” there’s little sustaining the action. Every creep up in the polls for Castillo — who embraces a message of crisis and catastrophe, hence the title — is another step toward actual disaster for the Bolivian people, which makes Jane a nearly impossible figure to cheer for — no matter how loud the rousing music accompanying her scenes.

Both Jane and the audience learn remarkably little about the country the film’s set in — a state of affairs that occasionally feels uncomfortable, as well as dramatically inadequate. (There’s a hurried explanation of why Castillo’s would-be deal with the IMF would be ruinous for everyday Bolivians which should be expanded to get a sense of what’s really at stake.) It’s a relief when the shadowboxing match between two archetypes — Castillo’s strength and gravity versus Rivera’s hope and change — are taken over by Jane and Candy’s guerilla warfare though innuendo. Among America’s most reliable exports are apparently comparisons of your political enemies to the Nazis. 

Jane and Candy are so good at swaying voters that ordinary Bolivians kinda end up looking like dopes. Which may be why the film’s most purely entertaining during the office scenes, especially when the characters zippily explain how common marketing tactics work or fail: attack ads are unpredictable; unavoidable displays of emotion should be angled just so for maximum camera coverage; the more ludicrous the whisper campaign, the more likely it is to work.

Too bad the whole thing’s capped off with a redemptive twist that finds Jane unable to ruin the world anymore through her Mephistophelian brilliance. You’d hope that a movie about manipulation would be able to pull off its subject better. There are always voters who’ve developed a resistance to the kind of control Jane’s constantly trying to perfect. Here, you can practically see the strings as they’re tugging at your heart. Hopefully playing spot-the-heartstrings will end up as good practice for the real thing in 2016.

Images via Warner Bros.

The Best of TIFF 2015 | Exclusive Reviews, Interviews and Videos