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Film Reviews Our Brand Is Crisis: No amount of political manoeuvring can fix this film

Sandra Bullock plays ‘Calamity’ Jane Bodine in Our Brand Is Crisis.

Warner Bros. Pictures

1 out of 4 stars

Title
Our Brand Is Crisis
Written by
Peter Straughan
Directed by
David Gordon Green
Starring
Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie
Classification
14A
Country
USA
Language
English

An infantile message movie coming 40 (if not 100) years too late, Our Brand Is Crisis hammers home the patently obvious message that politics are a cynical game. They're also (to use just a few analogies culled from the film) a cynical carousel, a cynical war, a cynical form of advertising, a cynical popularity contest and a cynical bus race around the lip of a Bolivian mountain cliffside. Politicians and their entourages don't necessarily have their electorate's best interests at heart. Democracy is a rigged game. Globalization stunts the developing world.

If you're nine years old – and have never seen Wag the Dog, or JFK, or Blow Out, or All the President's Men, or The Parallax View, or any of the countless docs and dramas having to do with the Nixon administration – maybe it's all very revelatory. To any adult with an even reasonably functioning brain, who has watched CNN or Fox News for more than a combined 30 seconds in their life, it's a mawkish chore. I mean, the idea is at least as old as Machiavelli. This is, after all, why we call such strategic manoeuvring "Machiavellian."

Taking cues from the fast-talking, spin-doctoring dramas of Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Newsroom) as much as D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus's 1993 doc The War Room (about the ways in which media-savvy consultants stage-managed the 1992 Clinton campaign), Our Brand Is Crisis casts Sandra Bullock as political strategist "Calamity" Jane Bodine. She's lured out of sober, nicotine-free retirement to salvage the campaign of an unpopular politician (Joaquim de Almeida).

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His chief opponent is a charismatic populist whose own campaign is engineered by Bodine's longtime rival, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, cutting a James Carville-ish profile with his Bic-bald head and infuriatingly impish smile). The chemistry between Bullock and Thornton is the film's only real merit, carried along as much by implications of their previous relationship as the cheesy will-they-or-won't-they tension.

Otherwise, for 100-plus minutes the film follows the duelling campaign of dirty tricks and misdirection, all in service of the guiding maxim that, in politics, "There's only one wrong: losing."

The film is loosely adapted from the 2005 documentary about similar attempts by U.S. strategists (including Carville) to intervene in a South American election. That film was hailed as revelatory – some 10 years ago. By now, the idea that politics are mean and brutish and nasty is boringly old hat. Netflix's premier drama House of Cards has been wringing turgid political drama (and some steamy sex stuff) from the premise for three seasons now.

So in aid of leavening things somewhat, hit-or-miss helmer David Gordon Green (the guy behind the affectingly homespun American indie George Washington, but also the stoner fantasy comedy Your Highness) and screenwriter Peter Straughan (whose script feels like it was co-authored by BrainyQuotes.com passages about the nature of politics and power) pull a last-ditch left-turn into hopefulness.

Eventually exhausted by her own professional cynicism, Bullock's Bodine makes a Norma Rae-ish stand, joining a protest against the leader she helped get elected. Hope! Change! Optimism! It's all hand-me-down Obama (or Justin Trudeau) stuff that comes off as totally insincere, as Bullock's character blossoms from corrupting white devil and noble white saviour. There's not enough spin doctoring in the world to twist this final move into something saleable.

Say what you will about the sneering, misanthropic political dramas of previous eras (Blow Out, JFK and so on). But at least they came by their cynicism in good faith. The sour taste they left in your mouth was unpleasant, sure. But it was also bracing, and vital. Our Brand Is Crisis ends up trading only in sugary sweet Pablum and dishonest optimism, driving home the message that we can "fix" politics, one reformed white woman's epiphany at a time. It's the kind of film that can't even bother to commit to its own cynicism, which makes it the most deeply cynical kind of film there is.

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