An embattled former president runs to reclaim his old office, but the people of Bolivia want a change. How can the old president win? By highlighting different struggles as a singular crisis, and presenting himself as the strong leader to make the nation great again.
But “Calamity Jane” Bodine (Sandra Bullock) learns that it’s not enough to win the election — your candidate has to have the character to govern well and keep his promises. Victory at the polls is never good enough. To achieve true progress you need a virtuous leader.
“Our Brand Is Crisis” presents an accurate and entertaining view of the mess that is electoral politics. Chocked full of debates, publicity stunts, and manufactured scandals, it takes a campaign veteran’s cynical view on how sausages are truly made. If you are a political idealist, this movie isn’t for you — but it is a thrill ride.
Humor, wit, and brilliant acting bring the struggles of South American politics to vibrant life. An American political consultant, Bodine is hired by former President Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), who is down by 28 points, and makes him a strong competitor. Her path runs through raucous parties with campaign staff, confrontations with angry mobs, and the tragic death of a campaign llama — “It’s like he killed himself rather than be in one of our commercials!”
This movie also contains what may be the most hilarious chase scene in modern film. In a moment of pure silliness, Castillo’s campaign bus catches up with the bus of his closest rival, and Bodine insists that they have to pass the other bus. The buses hug the edge of the Bolivian cliffs, as drivers jockey for position. The audience may even get a glimpse of Sandra Bullock’s buttocks as she flashes the competition.
Bullock masters the conflicted character of “Calamity Jane.” Even as Bodine pulls every trick in the book to elect Castillo, she is haunted by the consequences of past campaign tactics. Even as Bodine declares that “truth is relative in politics” and repeats the Machiavellian notion that the only sin is losing, her self-doubt and compassion for the people of Bolivia begin to chip away at her steely exterior.
“If you fight with monsters too long, you become a monster yourself,” Bodine’s campaign manager rival Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton) taunts. “Calamity Jane” proves him right. She eggs on Castillo, encouraging him to attack the other candidates, despite his firm resolution not to engage in negative politics.
At one point, Castillo fights back, saying he is not Bodine’s puppet. “Of course you’re a puppet — so am I,” she responds. “I am this close to winning this thing and I am not going to stand here and watch you ruin it!” While an average citizen might think the candidate — the former president of Bolivia — would call the shots, the campaign manager’s input makes a huge difference, until the day after the election.
Despite the hard campaign work, the election’s outcome does not alter the course of the country. “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal,” Bodine tells a heartbroken campaign worker. The film ends on a hopeful note, however, as Jane finds a chance to redeem the victory-obsessed monster she has become.
While “Our Brand Is Crisis” smartly avoids raising political issues, it does have a lesson for modern politics. Whatever your ideals, do not trust an unproven candidate to save the day. You can work from dawn until dusk, leak scandals to the news, and even put the opponent’s campaign bus in the dust — but even if you win, that doesn’t guarantee things will change for the better.
Nothing shows how a candidate will actually govern better than their previous record. Rather than betting on a charismatic outsider, voters should choose a candidate they can rely on — after the election is over. In today’s Republican primary, that may mean settling for a candidate with political experience — who has shown he or she will stand on concrete issues — rather than an untested outsider who talks the talk. If someone sounds like an insurance salesman, he probably is one.
“Our Brand Is Crisis” is a consummate political film, funny and enjoyable, but also incredibly conflicted. Politics is power. Power does not necessarily corrupt, but it reveals the true character of a person — and oftentimes even the power of the people is not enough to ensure the virtue of rulers.
As James Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” In case anyone had forgotten, “Our Brand Is Crisis” reminds us that men are not angels, even if they promise to “Make America Great Again.”