Winston Churchill once opined that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. Indeed, the past years have made this adage truer than ever, what with the best polling US presidential candidate of the Republican Party being Donald Trump, a man who claimed that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”.
Enter Our Brand Is Crisis, David Gordon Green’s new political movie based on a 2005 documentary of the same name, which is about American consultants’ involvement in the 2002 Bolivian presidential election. Sandra Bullock stars as the unforgettably named “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a political consultant brought out of retirement to salvage an unpopular ex-president’s campaign, with a team of American experts which includes a CIA agent (played by Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scott McNairy and Zoe Kazan). Billy Bob Thornton stars as her arch-nemesis Pat Candy, a rival American political consultant in the service of the best-polling candidate.
Despite it technically taking place more than a decade ago, Our Brand Is Crisis feels uncomfortably relevant. In the movie, Jane Bodine concluded Machiavellianly early on in the campaign that it is better to be feared than loved, and that the only conceivable way to achieve victory would be to create a climate of fear- a crisis, in other words. She advised Castillo, her client who previously shot protestors while being president, to convince the Bolivian citizenry that their country faced an unprecedented crisis that only a strong, uncompromising leader can rescue them from. Compare this to the demagogues currently seeking the Republican nomination, appealing to baser concepts of xenophobia and racism, and one can reasonably conclude that she has a salient point after all.
The movie, for the most part, was a farcical comedy, with the campaign activities humorously and accessibly presented. The comedy was mostly slapstick and rather low-brow, what with a llama used in a campaign advertisement being run over by a car hired by a rival consultant and Calamity Jane mooning the rival candidate’s bus at the end of what can be described as an adrenaline-pumping bus race. Towards the end, however, more poignant moments surface, as Castillo wins the support of the ethnic peasantry and tears up on television.
The resolution was rather unsatisfying, however. When Castillo, after assuming the presidency, was revealed to be a liar and a typical right-wing strongman intent on crushing opposition via tear gas and riot police, there was a distinct lack of catharsis for the audience as the movie ended rather abruptly. The consultant rediscovers her conscience, stares blankly as she joins the street protests together with a disillusioned campaign volunteer, and the camera cuts to an interview of Jane Bodine, who apparently became an outreach coordinator for a Latin American NGO. The confrontation with the questionable president-elect was conspicuously missing, as was any details of her NGO work. The fantastic buildup dissipated quite unexpectedly when the credits rolled.
Despite this, however, Our Brand Is Crisis offers a quick and easily comprehensible insight into the at-times dirty mechanics of modern democracy, which is more relevant than ever given the current waves of populism swamping the world and threatening to reduce everyone to a state of fear and paranoia. The characters are, for the most part, likeable and the presentation of the run-up to the actual election is gripping and thorough. Memorable quotes and even more memorable tricks and dirty tactics abound for a remake which got its screening right in time for the 2016 elections.
Contributed by: Ng Jing Kang