“When politics is treated as a game, everybody loses.”
I think Warren Beatty said that. Or someone else. Or I just made it up. Either way, it seems like the type of false quote that would be appreciated by Jane Bodine, the central character of Our Brand is Crisis, played by Sandra Bullock. The film is a fictionalized story based on or inspired by the 2005 documentary of the same name, directed by Rachel Boynton.
The doc depicted the American political strategies employed in the 2002 Bolivian national election. In this new story, Bodine is the key political consultant hired by the campaign of former president Pedro Castillo to help him overcome his 28-point deficit in the presidential race — the scenario is the same, but fictional versions of the participants are inserted.
Every political movie tends to be treated as though it’s trying to make some sort of statement about the modern political process, or political culture, and this one is sure to be interpreted that way, too. I’m not sure, though, if that’s the right way to approach this film.
Director David Gordon Green, who boasts such varied previous titles as George Washington, Pineapple Express, Prince Avalanche, and Joe, doesn’t seem like the type to make “statement films,” whatever those might be. That doesn’t mean he’s not a director with something to say, but, at least based on his previous work, character and story are prioritized far ahead of any message or meaning that’s meant to get across. His most recent films focus most closely on one or two main characters, making this new effort a slight departure. But the clear focus of this movie, more than being some sort of political statement, is a picture of this character of Jane Bodine.
Interestingly, the character was not originally intended to be a woman, but a male role, written to be played by George Clooney, who produced the film. Instead, Bullock as Jane gives the entire narrative an extra layer of texture. It infuses every interaction between her and rival strategist Pat Candy (played by the despicably excellent Billy Bob Thornton) with an unsettling sexual element, and it gives everyone’s underestimation of Jane’s abilities a slightly different timbre than if it were a male character.
For Bullock’s part, this might be an even stronger performance than her recent work in Gravity — she finds a terrific middle ground between being alienating and likeable, a balancing act of being realistically brash and cynical while still being sympathetic and compelling. More than likely, it’s because she’s really, really funny, in a role that doesn’t outwardly call for it in the way many of her previous comedic roles have done. There’s a subtlety in her eyes in this film that makes every instance of her time on screen an exciting thing to pay attention to, which is perhaps a credit to how much of a central focus this film puts on a type of female character that doesn’t get depicted very often.
Also worth noting is that this movie is quite clearly told from the perspective of the American operatives. That means that the work being done by these outsiders flown in to influence the outcome of a foreign election — work carried out by some, like Anthony Mackie’s character, as a well-intentioned act, and others, like Billy Bob Thornton’s, as a job — is presented without judgment or commentary, at least overtly.
It’s the type of story where the character’s morally questionable actions speak for themselves. But that also means that the specificity of the setting of Bolivia, which is alluded to in some scenes, isn’t treated with the level of interest that some would have liked to see. Having a locale as unrepresented in popular media as Bolivia could have presented an opportunity for added richness to a story, but then again, that may not have been in the spirit of our central characters, who are flown in temporarily and then are meant to move on to the next gig. This seems like one of those unsatisfying things that seems like a flaw, but is a feature of a particular perspective the narrative takes on.
Possibly the greatest pleasure of Our Brand is Crisis comes from simply witnessing this leading woman be recognized for being the smartest person in the room. Green does this by highlighting some of the ineptness of the other operatives around her, but in the kind of understated way he excels at — not with the over-the-top absurd hammer of a political show like Veep, but with the sensitivity for relational dynamics that he demonstrated in, for example, Prince Avalanche (my personal favorite Green film to date). This movie is stylistically one of his most mainstream efforts, but what’s remains interesting is in how his films vary from one year to the next. For a change of pace in the political genre, his style serves rather nicely.
Our Brand Is Crisis privileges character over politics in another David Gordon Green film to find a characteristically distinct balance between the comedic and the dramatic.