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There are conditions that democracy can’t deal with,” announces pollster Jeremy Rosner in Our Brand Is Crisis, a film that observes the disastrous application of Clintonian politics to a country that is perhaps even more dysfunctional than this one. The same might be said of documentary: Over the past few years, the form has failed to end the war in Iraq or prevent Dubya’s re-election, let alone derail Karl Rove or make amends for Enron. No wonder that this week’s crop of documentaries includes only one straightforward example of the genre, bracketed by C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, an exercise in fake history, and The American Ruling Class, a “dramatic documentary musical,” the very idea of which is enough to absolve Michael Moore of his sins.
With all due respect to innovation, the only one of these films that works is the one that follows the rules. Indeed, as some have already suggested, Our Brand Is Crisis is virtually a sequel to The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ 1993 study of the campaign to sell “Slick Willie” Clinton as a plausible president. James Carville, at once earthy and pompous, is not as big a player in this film as he was in that one, but that’s his firm handling the man who could be called Bolivia’s Clinton: Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada. In 2002, Greenberg Carville Shrum did polls, focus groups, and attack ads for the presidential candidate, who faced a wide field of contenders. Although Rachel Boynton’s documentary is structured as a real-life political thriller, Sánchez de Lozada’s electoral victory is never in doubt: We know he won because the film opens with the 2003 riots that drove him from office.
As a man who speaks English at least as well—and possibly better—than he does Spanish, the U.S.-raised Sánchez de Lozada is an ideal subject for an American documentary. His plan is to bring neoliberal, free-trade “progressivism” to Bolivia, a country with lots of peasants and natural gas but few U.S.-style high-tech or service industries. Rosner, who in the film serves as the principal spokesman for GCS, joins bosses Carville and Stan Greenberg in arguing that they’re bringing the equivalent of New Labour to Bolivia, where the other two leading candidates are tainted by ties to, respectively, the military and coca farmers. But Sánchez de Lozada has a small problem: He was president once before, from 1993 to 1997, and most Bolivians despise him.
Fortunately for GCS, Bolivia doesn’t have a runoff system. The firm needs merely to trim the other guys’ support slightly, thereby giving Sánchez de Lozada a weak plurality. But how does a president govern with a weak plurality? We’ve already seen the answer, and it involves bloody corpses in the streets of La Paz.
An incredible ham, Carville drops in occasionally, explaining with what might be perplexity—but actually seems to be great satisfaction—that GCS’s clients will take the same advice from him that they reject from his lesser-known colleagues. His diagnosis, conveyed mostly by Rosner and advertising consultant Tad Devine, is that Sánchez de Lozada has a “brand crisis,” a message that actually sounds more like Bush’s 2004 strategy than Clinton’s 1992 one. Whereas the other contenders’ “brand is change,” Sánchez de Lozada must identify himself as the man best able to deal with a potential national catastrophe. The other essential—which Carville gleefully announces is as difficult in political campaigns as in “intercourse”—is not to peak too soon. Sánchez de Lozada and his yanqui accomplices manage both these tricks, but their success lasts only as long as the election: As an actual leader, it turns out, Goni climaxed way too soon.
Aside from the opening riot sequences, Our Brand Is Crisis is mostly talking-head stuff. Marcelo Zarvos’ annoyingly jaunty vibes-and-strings score is probably meant to keep things moving, but it’s not really necessary. The film doesn’t lack drive, and it’s full of insights for anyone who’s alarmed by, or merely curious about, the interlocking machineries of contemporary marketing, politics, and globalization.
Not that these mechanisms always work, of course. Boynton’s doc doesn’t explain what concept Sánchez de Lozada’s successor, Evo Morales, branded to win a substantial victory in 2005. But you don’t need a high-paid consultant to guess that “screw the gringos” would’ve worked just fine.
If Our Brand Is Crisis might make many Americans self-conscious about the concepts their countrymen are selling overseas, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America should nettle only the most susceptible of viewers. Writer-director Kevin Willmott’s satirical sham, presented as a British documentary being rebroadcast with relevant commercials on an American TV network, supposes that the South won the Civil War, which makes today’s U.S.A. the C.S.A. Beginning with an inverse version of “the War of Northern Aggression,” the film progresses through a fun-house-mirror version of American history, from Abraham Lincoln’s failed attempt to flee to Canada and the reintroduction of slavery to the Northern states to the C.S.A.’s alliance with Hitler and the election—inexplicable under this scenario—of radical Republican John F. Kennedy as an anti-slavery president.
Interrupting the narrative—and perhaps even more important to Willmott’s schema—are a series of commercials for products or programs that feature racist imagery, purport to control slaves, or both. The bitter joke is that some of the brand names—which use such offensive terms as “darky,” “Sambo,” and that other one—were once real, or resemble ones that were. The most effective of these asides is an ad for Runaways, which recasts Cops as a show about tracking escaped slaves. There are also fake news breaks and clips from such (extremely) phony films as D.W. Griffith’s The Search for Dishonest Abe, although those usually substitute cheap shots for perceptive mockery.
Amusingly, Willmott makes Canada the promised land of racial equality—home of anti-slavery guerrillas and the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll. Most of the director’s barbs don’t pierce the surface, however, because of his failure to envision a persuasive alternate reality. Why are Jews sent to “reservations” on Long Island in the late 19th century at a time when it was mostly rural and not full of ex-Brooklynites? How does the slave-holding C.S.A. survive for another 200 years, when its only acknowledged allies are Hitler’s Germany (whose ultimate fate is unclear) and South Africa? And, of course, who killed JFK?
By and large, the film can’t answer its own questions. The jokes don’t develop out of the story, which hews to real history when it suits the movie and ignores it when that’s too much trouble. In its attempt to demonstrate that the United States remains suffused with racism, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America lets old outrages upstage a more complex contemporary reality.
At least Willmott knows what he wants to accomplish. Even that modest distinction can’t be credited to The American Ruling Class—unless its only goal is to demonstrate that Lewis Lapham knows some famous people. Directed by John Kirby but written and hosted by longtime Harper’s editor Lapham, this incoherent mélange of fiction and documentary purports to introduce two recent Yale grads (actually actors—and Harvard men) to the American elite. Lapham apparently supposes he’s violated a major taboo by admitting that this country—meaning New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and Houston—harbors an aristocracy. But having made this brash assertion, he retreats into mushmouthed platitudes.
He’s not alone. In staged meetings with protagonists Mike Vanzetti (Paul Cantagallo) and Jack Bellamy (Caton Burwell), more than a dozen arts, finance, or public-policy celebs reveal that they have nothing to reveal. Among the blathering heads are movie veterans Robert Altman and Mike Medavoy, former politicians Bill Bradley and James A. Baker III, philanthropist Samuel Peabody, recently deposed Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers, New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, and retired anchorman Walter Cronkite. They say stuff like “the most important power lies in the human spirit,” an assertion of Bradley’s that could have been made by any of them (save perhaps Vonnegut).
All of these rulers are male, most of them are white, and many of them are members of the Council on Foreign Relations and/or the Trilateral Commission, affiliations Lapham notes as if their very existence means something. (In its stylistic nadir, the film indicates the importance of these folks with tracking shots of their résumés.) As a counterbalance, Lapham introduces Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich, whose studies of the unsustainability of American minimum-wage life are so important that they began as an assignment for Harper’s. (And are now the inspiration for a dreadful musical number, performed in an IHOP kitchen.)
So the United States has a working class as well as a ruling class, each linked to the other by the fact that it is somehow acquainted with Lewis Lapham. After The American Ruling Class, both may reconsider. Far from inciting demands to know more about this country’s buttoned-down potentates, this movie suggests that these guys should just close their doors and continue their tedious machinations in private.CP