Review: A political satire in ‘Crisis’ mode

30 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Our Brand Is Crisis’ pulls punches, but Sandra Bullock is in high gear.

Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton lock horns in over-the-top fashion, but as a satire of Americans meddling in international affairs, Our Brand Is Crisis is a political misfire.Jane, once she acclimates to the Bolivian altitude, lays out Castillo’s new strategy: The country is in crisis, and only an old hand like Castillo can keep Bolivia from falling into chaos. A presidential election in South America becomes the backdrop for director David Gordon Green’s film (** out of four; rated R; opens Friday nationwide) featuring a once-successful campaign adviser (Bullock) getting her groove back.

However, the movie unfortunately gets stuck between edgy drama and broad comedy, and most of the humor lands with a thud, unless animals getting run over or an A-list actress mooning bus passengers get your vote. To its credit, “Crisis,” directed by David Gordon Green, is the rare major studio comedy to have anything serious on its mind, and that’s because its plot was inspired by an excellent Rachel Boynton documentary that came out a decade ago. Played with a mix of sass and venom by Bullock, talented political strategist Jane Bodine is hiding out in the mountains and licking her wounds after a string of rather bad defeats. She garnered the nickname “Calamity Jane” for good reason and is reticent in getting back to work when approached by an American management outfit trying to get their man Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) elected in Bolivia.

Jane employs every barely ethical dirty trick, including feeding false information to Candy and bringing in a pit bull of a researcher (Zoe Kazan) to dig up dirt on the candidates — including her own. As written by Peter Straughan, the fictional “Crisis” is also set during a Bolivian presidential campaign, though this time the film’s savvy political strategist is a woman, Jane Bodine, nicknamed “Calamity Jane” because of the chaos she invariably brings in her wake. He’s 28 points down and not exactly Barack Obama in the charisma department, but what piques Jane’s interest is getting a chance at some revenge against hated rival Pat Candy (Thornton). The idea was to do a fictional version of Rachel Boynton’s excellent 2005 documentary of the same name about real-life consultants, including James Carville, working in Bolivia in 2002 on behalf of a woefully flawed candidate who won the election by the narrowest of margins but lost his nation’s trust and was forced to resign the following year.

That change of gender is the best creative decision “Crisis” made, because it opened up a part for Sandra Bullock, a practiced farceur and someone with the fearless energy needed to make things funny. It’s a thornier, meatier role than she’s had in a while, one that allows her to use her well-honed comic chops while also digging deeper into a complicated, very flawed character. A James Carville clone brandishing a confident perma-smirk, Pat is heading up the seemingly unstoppable re-election campaign of Castillo’s popular opponent (Louis Arcella). Straughan has his characters repeat many political anecdotes — legends about Lyndon Johnson’s dirty tricks or Adlai Stevenson’s disparagement of common voters — that anyone in the business would already know by heart.

The narrative starts with political operatives Ben (Anthony Mackie) and Nell (Anne Dowd) driving to the remote snowy fastness where Jane lives in quiet, pottery-making retirement. Jane is a hot mess right from the start trying to work with the Bad News Bears of international politics, with Pat’s mere presence causing a constant psychological freakout. Green gets good laughs from the gamesmanship between the operatives, but in his efforts to show the election’s meaning to average Bolivians, he’s on shakier ground. Boynton’s film was both dramatic and deeply serious, a political spectacle with a tragic dimension in which the election was essentially hijacked by outside consultants who saw themselves as idealistic progressives yet never understood, as one of them finally acknowledged on camera, the textures of Bolivian politics or the angry electorate’s profound sense of historical hurt and loss. But things start to turn around when she gets a plan in order: Everything should be presented as a crisis, she tells her team and her client, and Castillo starts to move up in the polls as the Bolivian people begin seeing him as a strong leader.

I’m calm.” Ben and Nell, however, want her back in the saddle, helping them save the campaign of a Bolivian candidate named Castillo (Portuguese actor Joaquim de Almeida) who is 28 points behind the front-runner with 90 days until the election. Pablo Larraín’s small-scale, Spanish-language fiction film “No” succeeded vividly and entertainingly as a whipsmart account of how advertising executives in Chile packaged a pro-democracy candidate who, in 1988, drove the military dictator Augusto Pinochet out of power. Jane comments early on that “you don’t change the man to fit the narrative, you change the narrative to fit the man” — and the movie’s phony ending shows the same is true for a woman, if that woman is a bankable Hollywood star like Sandra Bullock. Bullock is Jane Bodine, otherwise known as Calamity Jane, famous for winning elections at any cost. “The truth is what I tell the electorate the truth is,” she likes to say.

Instead of leaning into the biting commentary and relevant issues of that story, however, the new movie’s fictionalized journey gets too starstruck with its own familiar faces. When we first meet Jane, she’s retired from the down-and-dirty world of politics, having been felled by a scandal involving the violation of election laws. They are fun to watch in Cold War-esque battle, with death glares and icy banter being the weapons of choice, and their scenes together nicely hint at untold history between them.

It’s never mentioned — there is the bigger picture of an election at stake, of course — but a palpable, weirdly romantic tension exists between Jane and Pat, as if they stuffed each other’s ballot boxes at least once in the past and now would rather not talk about it. The machinations of the Bolivian campaign bear unmistakable similarities to the packaging of candidates here at home, but the last thing audiences need at the moment is a movie that mocks the hollowness of electoral politics without having anything new to say about it.

But factor that in with the lack of real message and needlessly lowbrow humor (the suicidal llama is a particularly bad touch) and this unfocused film shows more of an internal identity Crisis than a political one. It’s good money, but the real reason she agrees is that an old nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, channeling James Carville — who actually did work on the 2002 Bolivian election) is already down there working for the opposition. Bullock brings a jaunty/raunchy spirit to her role, though I must say I averted my gaze, as a matter of principle, from a shot of Jane mooning an adversary through the window of a campaign bus lurching crazily along a mountain road. With Jane going on the attack, quoting “The Art of War” author Sun Tzu, referencing the “Daisy” attack ad that derailed Barry Goldwater and hiring expert dirt-digger LeBlanc (Zoe Kazan), this central part of “Crisis” is the film’s most energetic and entertaining.

Like “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” an earlier collaboration between Straughan and producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney, “Crisis” has difficulty deciding whether it’s a comedy or something more serious, and that indecision proves fatal. Observers of U.S. politics will recognize every lesson learned here; When Pat seeks to exploit Jane’s candidate’s short temper, resulting in the candidate punching a man, Jane stops her team from crafting an apology, and frames the punch as a sign of his no-crap approach. Rather than continue in a satiric mode, “Crisis” gets increasingly fascinated by one of its least-involving characters, a young Bolivian named Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco) whose earnest belief in political democracy leads to some dead-end plot detours. Another political drama, directed by George Clooney, who was one of the producers of “Our Brand Is Crisis.” Ryan Gosling stars as an astute, idealistic media consultant to a Democrat governor (played by Mr.

It all ends with the election, of course, but a subplot involving an idealistic young volunteer (appealing Bolivian actor Reynaldo Pacheo) keeps the film honest, as it were, with an ending aimed at making us wonder what it all was for in the first place. A fine political thriller, adapted from the 1955 novel by Graham Greene and set in the early 1950s, when Viet Minh fighters were driving colonial France out of Indochina. Michael Caine is Thomas Fowler, an aging English journalist whose exquisite Vietnamese mistress is being courted by Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a handsome young American CIA agent posing as a U.S. economic-aid worker.

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