“You never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Even though others have been cited as originating this disturbing maxim, this quote is often attributed to Rahm Emanuel, present Chicago mayor and President Barack Obama’s former White House chief of staff. Crisis can certainly present itself with a political opportunity, but using it as a brand for a candidate may make for a one trick pony.
Based on the 2005 documentary of the same name by filmmaker Rachel Boynton, “Our Brand is Crisis” takes real world events and injects a bit of fiction. The story centers on Jane (Sandra Bullock) a political strategist notable for her losses as much as for her victories. She wears the mantle of “Calamity Jane” well, but when we first meet her, she’s withdrawn from politics in favor of a potter’s wheel. But when she’s visited by a team desperate for new thinking on a Bolivian presidential campaign, Jane, clay pot in hand, returns again to bring the chaos.
Driving Jane’s comeback is a personal vendetta against a fellow political strategist Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton). She is driven to beat him, even if that is no good for Bolivia. Candy is a slick operator who is comfortably leading the run for the most popular candidate. And his motives also seem a bit personal—Candy just can’t help himself around Jane, but the attraction is one way.
Jane initially is a mess, which appears to be part of her unconventional style. She’s well read and when the mood strikes her, she often quotes famous people, whether or not such quotes are in context. But there is a vacancy to Jane—she’s just missing depth. And her candidate, Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), is a rich former president, whose reasons for running are about as deep as Jane’s walking encyclopedia of quotations. Castillo is lagging badly in the polls. It will be up to Jane to find a purpose for his campaign and direct it upward.
“Our Brand is Crisis” has fun with the application of American political campaign techniques in a foreign setting. The trailer may have already spoiled many of the film’s best laughs, especially one involving a llama and the language barrier. These jokes still work within the context of the film as a whole, but there are few others. “Crisis” is a political dramatic comedy with elements of all three, but lacking any one in sufficient abundance.
Bullock is fine in the lead, however, she just does not look haggard enough. Maybe it’s just impossible to make her look bad, but I think more time could have been taken making her look really rough. In one scene she is arrested and spends time in a Bolivian jail cell. This does little to dim her movie star appearance.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Candy in familiar fashion, channeling his inner James Carville. He’s snarky and exquisitely prickly, however, we’ve seen him in better movies doing the same thing (see 1998’s “Primary Colors”). And every time “Crisis” might be getting dramatic or deeper, Thornton shows up as a twisted form of comic relief. This telegraphed bit of typecasting is counterproductive, even though Thornton is entertaining.
“Our Brand is Crisis” isn’t a bad film. Director David Gordon Green delivers a expertly shot (on 35mm film), well-crafted movie if not a completely satisfying one. The screenplay from Oscar nominated writer Peter Straughan (writer of last year’s marvelous “Frank”) just isn’t dark enough and lacks the bite that would drive home the theme more powerfully. Like Jane’s penchant for spitting out quotes of others, “Our Brand is Crisis” is heavy on platitudes but light on profundity.