Our Brand is Crisis, the latest film from Director David Gordon Green and Producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov, is a fictionalized remake of the documentary of the same name by Rachel Boynton. The film follows a presidential election in Bolivia and how the candidates use American political strategists to win. Is the film another great political satire or dead on arrival?
“Calamity” Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) was a successful political strategist until a few losses and scandals pushed her into retirement. When Nell (Ann Dowd) and Ben (Anthony Mackie) come calling to offer Jane a job helping Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) win the presidential election in Bolivia, she’s unsure if she should abandon her peaceful existence for the stress of another political campaign. Then they tell her that Castillo’s main opponent, Victor Rivera (Louis Arcella), has hired Jane’s nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), she can’t help but get involved in the race. Upon arriving in Bolivia, Jane is despondent and not pulling her weight with the campaign until Candy engages with her and gets her competitive juices flowing again. She goes full-bore and pushes her team to pull out all the stops to get Castillo. She befriends and idealistic campaign worker, Eduardo (Reynaldo Pacheco), whom Jane dubs “Eddie.” Through Eddie and his friends, Jane learns about the problems and concerns plaguing the people of Bolivia, but her only goal is to win. Will she finally beat Candy and if so, what will that mean for the people of Bolivia?
On the surface, Our Brand is Crisis looks to be a home run. The problem is, the film isn’t funny enough to like as a comedy, and the drama isn’t compelling enough to like the film as a drama. It straddles this weird line where it has some funny moments, but the audience never really engages with any of the characters. Jane herself is pretty unlikable and it’s hard to care about her failures and successes when you can’t get attached to her. There have been, of course, plenty of great films that focused on unlikable characters, but usually there’s at least one supporting character that you’re pulling for. That character never really surfaces in Our Brand is Crisis. I guess you could say that the audience is supposed to sympathize with Eddie, but we never really learn that much about him. We visit his home once and learn that the only real reason he’s supporting Castillo is because many years ago when Castillo was the president the first time around, he picked a young Eddie out of the crowd and took a picture with him. That’s it. He doesn’t really feel passionately about any of Castillo’s policies, only the man himself. So, when he does a complete 180 on Castillo after the latter reveals himself to be untrustworthy, Eddie just comes off as a scorned child, not a political idealist. The same goes for Jane, who has her own out of nowhere awakening at the end of the film. For 99% of the movie, she’s a cold, calculating, cynical, and shady political consultant and then suddenly, she becomes a political activist. There isn’t enough evidence in the film to support her switch and it comes off as too easy and unearned.
The cast does well with what they’re given. Bullock plays against type a bit as the thorny Jane, but she does generate some laughs. Her interactions with Billy Bob Thornton are great and he’s easily the best part of the film. I really liked de Almeida as Castillo too. He shows a nice range of emotions throughout the film. I’ve liked de Almeida ever since I first caught him in Clear and Present Danger, so I was happy to see him in this role. Scoot McNairy also does good work here as a clueless media strategist.
Overall, I was expecting a lot more from Our Brand is Crisis. It had all the makings of a great political comedy, but none of the characters are terribly compelling when the story turns dramatic. When you don’t really care about the characters involved in the story, it’s tough to engage in the film. The script was missing a clear through line for the audience to follow. I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to be rooting for and it turns out that the answer was no one.