David Gordon Green has had one of the more peculiar directing careers of recent memory. He stared out as an indie auteur before moving on to direct a handful of stoner comedies (Pineapple Express, Your Highness) before returning to the indie realm. His latest film, the political drama Our Brand is Crisis, rests somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. It’s a film that lacks a political sophistication necessary to make it a more compelling drama, and isn’t quite funny enough to be referred to as a comedy. In adapting Rachel Boyton’s 2005 documentary of the same name, Gordon Green and screenwriter Peter Straughan have created a film that is at times quite entertaining yet robust in its political cynicism.
Sandra Bullock plays Jane Bodine, a political strategist whose personal and professional problems have earned her the nickname “Calamity.” She’s been out of the political game for the past six years, having quit both smoking and drinking while making her own pottery. All that changes when the political world literally comes knocking at her door in the form of Nell (Ann Dowd), a former colleague, and Ben (Anthony Mackie), a young up-and-comer in the political world. Nell and Ben are trying to get Jane to join the Bolivian presidential campaign they’ve been hired for. They’re working with Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), a former president hoping to regain office after a 15-year absence. Reluctant to join any campaign, Jane is swayed when she learns that Castillo’s opposition has hired Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), a shrewd strategist and Jane’s political arch-nemesis. In Bolivia, following a brief stint of altitude sickness, Jane works with the crew, including Buckley (Scoot McNairy), a media expert, and LeBlanc (Zoe Kazan), a crack investigator. Jane and company must shape the narrative of the election to fit their candidate in order to win at all costs.
The biggest problem facing Our Brand is Crisis is the film’s dual tones. At once, the film wants to be somewhat comical while mining the political game for dramatic weight. Had Gordon Green pulled it off, it would’ve been a marvelous ride. But the political stakes that the dramatic elements depend on are obscured by abstract ideologies. Castillo is described as a political conservative, but that term is woefully vague and is never fully formed. Meanwhile, all of the American political players stand for nothing but winning, which is something that could be quite profound had it been played against a stronger formed political backdrop. Instead this is a war of tactics, where circulating rumors and denying them are tactical offensive strikes to weaken and destroy their enemies. All of which give Our Brand is Crisis this strong sense of cynicism, as if all the players in political theater have no ideological standings. The film comes across as a testament to voter apathy, though it tries to skirt this notion with last minute redemption arc.
Lost in the cynical politics and lacking dramatic weight is the fact that Sandra Bullock gives one hell of a performance as Jane, one with some pretty solid physical comedy tossed in the mix. It make one wish that the film was played more for comedy, especially when Bullock is paired with Billy Bob Thornton. When the two share the screen, you can almost forget that the backstory for each of their characters is far more interesting than their on screen story. Based on James Carville, Thornton’s Pat Candy is a worthy rival, one smart and cunning with an edge of vulgar ruthlessness. Despite being thoroughly charming in the first half of the film, Anthony Mackie, Scoot McNairy, and Ann Dowd are relegated to the background as the film approaches its conclusion.
Our Brand is Crisis is so close to being a vibrant, important film, but David Gordon Green is unable to find the balance he’s seeking. Instead, the film features some fine performances, nice 35mm cinematography, and some incredibly cynical politics in a fairly uninteresting story. But that’s what hurts so much, the ingredients are there. The film certainly isn’t a landslide disaster – it’s the Walter Mondale of cinema. Our Brand of Crisis is more like a Mitt Romney, wishy-washy and fades late in the game.