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It must be really hard to make a good film about politics. Last week saw the release of Truth, about the ousting of Dan Rather following his controversial piece on George W. Bush’s military service, which turned a complex-real-life story into an oversimplified piece of propaganda. Our Brand Is Crisis is a failure for almost the exact opposite reason: It could have used a little more propaganda, or at least a clear reason to exist.
Based on the fascinating 2005 documentary of the same name, the Sandra Bullock-starring comedy-drama about an American politico who gets embroiled in a South American presidential election is artistically flat and politically inert. Mixing broad comedy with shallow political insight, it’s unclear what the filmmakers—including George Clooney as producer—were aiming for, but it’s equally clear they didn’t achieve it.
Although the role of Jane was originally written for Clooney, not Bullock, Our Brand Is Crisis feels in every way like a star vehicle: a film whose unwavering commitment to redeeming its flawed protagonist obliterates any actual inquiry. When we first meet Jane, she has withdrawn from public life after a series of losing campaigns, and is hermetically sealed in a remote mountain cabin. Two consultants (Anthony Mackie and Ann Dowd) lure her out of quasi-retirement and convince her to join their team for the chance to vanquish an old foe (Billy Bob Thornton), who is working for a rival candidate in the Bolivian election.
The hijinks that follow are terribly predictable, but the failure is as much political as creative. The humor is as lazy and mean-spirited as we’ve seen in any film this year—amazingly, someone still thinks it’s funny to show an animal get hit by a car and killed—while the supposedly provocative back-room political machinations come off as tame and antiquated.
Are viewers supposed to shake their heads in disbelief that Jane urges her candidate to cry on camera? Or that she goes negative on her opposing candidate? Even the idea represented in the film’s title—that a candidate can win support by scaring voters about a made-up crisis—may be politically accurate but it feels a decade or so too late to be revelatory. To compare Bullock movies, Our Brand Is Crisis has as much of value to say about politics as The Blind Side does about race.
Given these artistic and political failures, it will surprise no one to find that Our Brand Is Crisis also has a white savior problem. As Jane and her American friends work to determine the future of a country they know nothing about, eventually the concerns of Bolivia’s indigenous people start to work their way in from the margins. Jane, of course, starts to question the value of her win-at-all-costs approach to politics. Shouldn’t she be, like, helping people instead?
The film never explains what that might actually entail; apparently, a late shot of Jane protesting with a crowd of brown people is enough. Using an entire nation of foreigners to serve an American character’s redemption is mind-numbingly misguided, but it may be the purest distillation of a film that simultaneously puts itself on a high moral pedestal while pandering to the lowest common denominator.
Our Brand Is Crisis opens Friday at AMC Mazza Gallerie and AMC Tysons Corner 16.