Sunday, May 29, 2016

Our Brand Is Crisis (Participant, Smokehouse, Warner Bros., 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Our Brand Is Crisis, a production of George Clooney’s company (he was supposed to star in it, too, but at the last minute he dropped out and Billy Bob Thornton replaced him) inspired by a 2002 Presidential campaign in Bolivia in which former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada mounted a comeback and hired James Carville’s company to run his campaign — and another American political consultant was hired by Lozada’s principal opponent. The campaign was filmed by Rachel Boynton for a 2005 documentary, also called Our Brand Is Crisis, and screenwriter Peter Straughan thought it would make a good premise for a feature film, though the script languished in the Hollywood slush pile for years until it made the so-called “Blacklist,” a poll of the best unproduced screenplays out there, in 2008. Finally, seven years later, it got turned into a film which went nowhere at the box office but was actually a pretty engaging movie even though it was that most frustrating of all films, a good movie that could have been considerably better. The director, David Gordon Green (his first feature work), made a major casting switch; he turned the lead consultant from a man into a woman, partly so Sandra Bullock could play her but also to create a romantic antagonism between the two rival American consultants for the different candidates.

She is “Calamity” Jane Bodine — so nicknamed because of the series of disasters that seems to follow her around — and her career is at a low ebb because she’s lost the last four elections in a row ever since rival consultant Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, with his head shaved to more closely resemble James Carville) got under her skin during a mayoral campaign in which both were representing opposing candidates, Candy pulled a dirty trick at the last minute and his man won. We’re never told if Candy and Bodine ever actually made it to the bedroom together — though he clearly wants to and so does she, though she’s also quite obviously afraid of their attraction — in one of the weirder lines of dialogue he tells her towards the end of the film, “I’m going to be spending a lot of time pleasuring myself and thinking of you.” “That’s very flattering,” she dead-pans in response. She signs on to the campaign of Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida, who judging from his name seems more Brazilian than Bolivian), a conservative ex-president who when he was in office before turned the police loose on anti-government demonstrators, resulting in many deaths. He’s looked on quite suspiciously by the Bolivian workers and peasants, who have their own candidate, Victor Rivera (Louis Arcella), a progressive populist who promises to reform the Bolivian constitution and keep the International Monetary Fund (IMF) out of Bolivia. The Bolivians seem far more hip than Americans to what the IMF actually does when they come into a country; in exchange for loans to help the country out of a debt, they demand that the government institute so-called “structural adjustment” programs that include “austerity” cuts to government budgets — especially social programs — as well as privatizing state-owned industries and deregulating the economy generally, so multinational corporations can invest there and pay tiny wages and few or no taxes.

With Bodine on Castillo’s side and Candy on Rivera’s, the campaign turns into (among other things) a personal rivalry between the two — it reaches its low point when Castillo’s and Rivera’s buses find themselves on the same narrow, winding mountain road in Bolivia and Jane insists that Castillo’s driver overtake and pass Rivera’s bus, and as it passes Jane drops her pants and moons Candy. (Sandra Bullock was asked the inevitable question — yours or a stunt ass? — and insisted she did the scene herself, though the film does credit 18 stunt people.) The title comes from the fact that Jane soon realizes that in order to get Castillo elected she must dash the hopes of Bolivians that a president like Rivera can do anything to make their lives better, and instead sell them on the idea that Bolivia faces an existential crisis and only a president with experience in the job can pull the country out of it. Given what producer Clooney has been in recent headlines for — not only supporting Hillary Clinton for president over genuine populist Bernie Sanders (thereby aligning himself similarly to Sandra Bullock’s character in his movie) but sponsoring a fundraiser and charging $353,000 for dinner seats at Bill and Hillary Clinton’s table — I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Our Brand Is Crisis and the current U.S. Presidential election: like Pedro Castillo, Hillary Clinton is hated by a large number of Americans, and she’s so well known a public figure there’s almost no way her campaign can “redefine” her and get more Americans to like her. So, like Jane Bodine in the movie, Clinton has to get the American people deathly afraid for their future and so fearful that they’ll reject both Left-wing populist Sanders and Right-wing populist Donald Trump and vote for a status quo candidate instead. Aside from that, Our Brand Is Crisis is an interesting, engaging feature film that makes me want to see the documentary it was “inspired” by — though the elements of a political campaign, Jane’s fish-out-of-water status in Bolivia (she spends the first two reels or so sucking on oxygen and vomiting because she’s not used to the thin atmosphere at Bolivia’s high elevation) and the romantic (or at least sexual) antagonism between Jane and Pat don’t quite jell as well as screenwriter Straughan obviously thought (or hoped) they would.

What it is strongest about is how irrelevant not only the voters but the politicians themselves become in the seemingly endless rivalries between consultants — at one point, as they’re preparing for a debate, Castillo gets tired of Jane telling him exactly what he is supposed to say and what he’s not supposed to say, and stressing that he needs to “stay on message” (as this skill is called) and bend every question he’s asked to say what he wants to say whether it’s responsive or not, and he starts chewing her out and saying that she’s working for him, not the other way around. “No, nobody hired me,” Jane replies. “I cannot be hired. Unless you mean in the uh, you know, the technical sense, then yes, I probably was hired.” There’s also a sort of grim fascination in the dirty tricks Jane and Pat think up to play on each other’s candidates, including accusations of extramarital affairs (Castillo, it turns out, has a long-time mistress, but his wife, separated from him and living in the U.S., understands and approves), cult membership (Candy digs up a photo of Castillo visiting his son in L.A. and appearing in the robes of the cult his son is part of, and uses it to suggest that Castillo is part of the cult whose beliefs include that its higher-level members can fly, sort of like Scientology) and Nazi sympathies. As they’re sitting together before the candidates’ debate, Jane has a paperback copy of Goethe’s Faust open and claims to have read therein, “It may be possible to hold power based on guns; but it is far better and more gratifying to win the heart of the nation.” Candy, of course, immediately rips off the line and has Rivera use it in the debate — only it turns out the original quote wasn’t from Goethe, but from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Eventually Castillo squeezes out a minor victory with just 25 percent of the vote — apparently Bolivia doesn’t have a runoff so you can win the presidency in a multi-candidate field with that little actual support — and no sooner does he take office that he secretly starts negotiating with IMF representatives despite his pledge during the campaign that he’d only invite the IMF in if the Bolivian people voted for it in a referendum. 

his disillusions his long-time supporter Eddie Camacho (Reynaldo Pacheco), who in a lot of ways is the most interesting character in the movie: he’s a kid from the Bolivian slums and virtually all his relatives and friends, including his brothers, think Castillo is a rich people’s stooge, but Eddie supports Castillo and is willing to film Rivera’s rallies for Castillo’s opposition research team because years before, when Eddie was just a baby, Castillo held him and presented him to the crowd during one of his previous campaigns. Only at the very end of the film Eddie witnesses Castillo talking to the IMF, leaks the info to his anti-Castillo brothers, and this gets out and starts a protest movement which Castillo tries to quell by having the police assault the crowds with tear gas. Jane watches this from the SUV that is carrying her to the Bolivian airport for her next assignment and, just when I was thinking, “Oh, no, they’re not going to have her go Bogart on us and regain her old ideals,” they have her go Bogart on us and regain her old ideals. She walks out of the truck and the next time we see her, she’s being interviewed in her new capacity with something called the “Latin American Solidarity Network,” defending Latin American people against corrupt politicians like Pedro Castillo and the Americans that help elect them. Our Brand Is Crisis isn’t that great a film — Bullock is a better actress than Julia Roberts but she plays this part pretty much the same way Roberts would have, and the character conflicts are about as flat as a piece of cardboard — but it’s haunting even though the moral dilemma facing political consultants and their uncertain relationships with the candidates has been done before in movies like The Candidate with Robert Redford, Bulworth with Warren Beatty (from which this film quotes several lines of dialogue) and probably the closest antecedent, Power, a film with Richard Gere as a consultant who was running several campaigns at once and representing candidates with different — sometimes diametrically opposed — ideologies and views on the issues. Still, Our Brand Is Crisis is a fascinating film to watch, especially in the middle of a U.S. Presidential election that is pitting an old-line moderate Establishment hack against populist challengers from both Left and Right!