Not for nothing does Sandra Bullock’s political mouthpiece name-drop Warren Beatty early on in Our Brand Is Crisis, and hands a young campaign worker a bottle of Newman’s Own steak sauce a few scenes later. The film, based on the 2005 documentary of the same name, comes perilously close to exploring producer George Clooney’s capacity for skepticism, but in the end only serves to validate his devotion to showmanship as Hollywood’s current reigning poster boy for blue-state morality, naïve warts and all.
Bullock plays Jane Bodine, a former campaign strategist whose reckless tactics and fondness for surprise ambush attacks earned her the nickname “Calamity Jane,” until the bottom dropped out and she began butchering operations left and right while in the throes of depression and cocktails. (In reality, she’s based on the far less calamitous James Carville, but what’s sexy about that?) Now a mountain recluse (shades of Robert Redford’s Jeremiah Johnson), Jane is approached by tacticians from former Bolivian president and reentering candidate Pedro Castillo’s team.
Faster than she can remind her recruiters that she hasn’t had a drink in three years and has never felt more at peace, she’s disembarking a private jet and keeling over from the altitude sickness in El Alto. Lugging around an oxygen tank and holding her head in her hands, it’s unclear whether she’s vomiting from the elevation or her quickly dawning realization that her efforts face two major strikes: that Castillo’s status as an untouchable elite is killing his chances among a populace begging for chance, and that the populist commanding the polls is guided by Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), Bodine’s reptilian bête noire who’s defeated her ponies in all head-to-head contests.
On this last point, Our Brand Is Crisis and Bullock both bare their teeth. Bodine’s commitment to her job and alignment with her goals are shown as vague, even indifferent until she realizes that she’s been cornered into a rematch with her leering, teeth-sucking enemy, at which point her pilot light flares and she whips her entire staff into an image-makeover frenzy.
The film posits that the invasion of calcified American political engineering can only derail developing nations’ hopeful historical trajectories, which is reasonably compelling territory whenever Bullock’s barking Bodine reminds Castillo and his closest compatriots, “Stop trying to change the man to fit the narrative, change the narrative to fit the man.”
It’s far less palatable the more evident it becomes that the movie itself is scarcely more interested in Bolivians’ stake in all this whisper-campaigning, tour bus-racing, bobblehead-launching chicanery than Bodine or Candy. One riotously self-righteous interlude sees Bodine and her team discussing Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” with the proletariat over beer and coca, which sadly constitutes the only moment of legitimate discourse between the two factions. And so when Bodine’s inevitable change of heart (or belated development of one) finally arrives, it’s not borne out of any socio-economic conscience, but, rather, the inability for the film’s superstar makers to fathom an alluring icon being legitimately cynical about the process.