Oscar winner Sandra Bullock shines as a manic campaign strategist for hire in Our Brand is Crisis, a darkly comic look at political corruption in Bolivia and the cutthroat world of election strategy from director David Gordon Green (All The Real Girls, Pineapple Express). “Suggested by” Rachel Boynton’s acclaimed 2005 documentary of the same name, Our Brand is Crisis is sure to feel more than a little familiar to fans of political potboilers and election dramas, but they’re unlikely to have seen one set against the colourful backdrop of Bolivian politics. Daily riots, blatant corruption, police crackdowns, zero transparency, personal attacks, singing candidates, each photo op more ridiculous than the last; if you thought the current crop of American presidential contenders were bad, you’re obviously not acquainted with how things are done in South America.
Bullock is fantastic as ‘Calamity’ Jane Bodine, a brilliant but troubled political operator hired by corrupt establishment candidate Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida). Castillo is well behind in the polls and needs every dirty trick in Bodine’s arsenal to save his floundering campaign. Billy Bob Thornton is at peak slime here, playing Bodine’s James Carville-esque rival Pat Candy. The scenes in which the two exchange barbs and war stories are some of the best in the film. When the movie isn’t operating as a damning portrait of how modern elections are packaged and sold to the public, it’s also fairly successful as a character study of a cynical gun for hire trying to get by doing the only thing she knows how. Bullock is now an old hand at playing this type of character, and in this case it was a role which was originally written for a man.
Although Our Brand is Crisis is a far cry from the small, slice of life pictures Green shot on opposite sides of his Hollywood stoner trilogy (Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter), it’s a welcome departure. Like many of his movies, the film manages to walk a fine line between comedy and drama. For every laugh to be had there are plenty of sobering moments that put things in perspective, like what’s at stake for the Bolivian people, what selling your soul to a campaign does to a person, or how leaders consistently betray the public trust. The film veers into some problematic white saviour territory at times, but tonally the film manages to rest somewhere between outright cynicism of George Clooney’s The Ides of March (he produced the film) and the calculated idealism of Pablo Larrain’s NO.
Our Brand is Crisis is sure garner Bullock some buzz come awards season, but if nothing else the film is an entertaining – if slightly bland – political yarn held up by some great characters and performances. It’s also the only film where you’re likely to see Bullock quote the wisdom of Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, and Dolly Parton nearly in the same breath.