by Frank Calvillo
Political comedies can be extremely touch and go when it comes to connecting with the moviegoing public, especially ones which take a peek into the behind the scenes action that goes into getting someone into office. Fortunately, thanks to some on-point direction from David Gordon Green, some genuinely funny moments and a stellar performance from one the movies’ most dependable leading ladies, Our Brand is Crisis has the potential to actually score with moviegoers.
In Our Brand is Crisis, Sandra Bullock plays Jane Bodine, a former campaign strategist known for her ruthless approach toward running campaigns and getting politicians into office. Jane has been coaxed out of semi-retirement to help turn around the hopelessly dire campaign of Senator Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), a Presidential candidate for the troubled city of Bolivia. When she arrives in South America, Jane has her work cut out for her as her candidate is currently running dangerously low in the polls. Adding to the challenge is the fact that the strongest opposition’s campaign is being run by Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), Jane’s longtime rival.
While the nature of the story may come off as too serious for mainstream moviegoers (especially considering its popular leading lady), it should be noted that Our Brand is Crisis works as a solid comedy. Bullock brings her trademark slapstick goofiness, endearing as ever, and there are enough colorful supporting characters surrounding her to provide an ongoing assortment of laughs. Two scenes, however, stand out as the film’s funniest. The first takes place when the team is shooting a commercial with Castillo featuring a llama. When the llama runs through an open gate while the crew is setting up, it’s instantly hit by a car, causing a panic in everyone, save Jane who bewilderingly comments: “it’s like he would have rather killed himself than be in our commercial.” Another takes place when, thanks to Jane’s efforts, Castillo is rapidly climbing the polls and is headed to meet with people in a remote village. While the crew is traveling there by bus, Jane spots Candy in his candidate’s bus up ahead and instigates a race between the two buses. The sight of both Jane and Candy literally bribing their bus drivers to speed up on this treacherous, cliff-riddled road, is hilarious.
Our Brand is Crisis divides its characters into two distinct camps — those who care about politicians, and those who use them as a means to an end.
In the character of Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco), a twenty-something volunteer on Castillo’s campaign, the film illustrates the idea of politicians as heroes. The character of Eddie harkens back to a time when people believed that a man had enough power within him to make the world around them a better place. Looking at Eddie and his complete devotion to Castillo is nothing but inspiring. Despite coming from poverty and having no reason to believe that things will get better for his country, Eddie firmly puts all of his faith into the man he is working for, in the hope that he will make things better.
On the opposite side, there are those individuals who see politicians as nothing more than pawns in a game between them and their own opponents. It’s fascinating to watch Jane and Candy so casually trade poll numbers and approval ratings as a way of one-upping the other without an ounce of consideration to the many people those numbers effect. The shaping and angling of a campaign, as well as the careful molding of a politician, are practices everyone knows about, yet isn’t shown enough in politically-themed films. Even the movie’s title signifies how constructed the world of campaigns can be. When all seems lost for Castillo, Jane comes up with the brilliant idea of using the scare tactic that Bolivia is in worse shape than it really is, emphasizing the term “crisis.” From then on, every speech, promotional item and public appearance featuring Castillo must include “crisis” somewhere to ensure that every person watching hears it to the point where they feel that voting for Castillo is the only way to escape “crisis.”
When it comes down to it, Our Brand is Crisis does provide a somewhat interesting look at what those who play the game ultimately become. “If you start playing with the monsters long enough, sooner or later you become one,” Candy tells Jane. In spite of the character’s slimy nature, he does make a well-observed point. It takes a certain level of callousness and detachment to make a living out of putting individuals into positions of power, not because they’re the best candidate for the job or because their victory will ensure great change, but simply because it’s who they were hired to help win. Our Brand is Crisis shows that only a specific sort of individual, a “monster,” is able to live with themselves and the part they played in how the various towns, cities and countries, whose officials they help elect, prosper or falter.
It goes without saying that Bullock is great as Jane. The actress has crafted a character who is a closed-off shell of a woman, but doesn’t forget to inject her with a clutzy nature to avoid alienating the audience. Thornton’s character has a few noteworthy moments and some pretty decent lines, but there’s a feeling he’s never used as well as he could be, while Ann Dowd, Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazaan and Scoot McNairy manage to rise above their somewhat limited roles as the rest of Castillo’s campaign staff.
However it’s Pacheco and de Almeida who very nearly steal the show in their roles, with both doing such soulful and complex work, while avoiding being overshadowed by their more famous co-stars.
Green and Bullock (who also produced along with George Clooney) work in sync with one another to make sure the multi-toned film hits as many right notes as possible. And though the film may succumb to its studio trappings on occasion, Our Brand is Crisis offers enough heft, laughs and great acting to earn its place among other political comedies.