Crisis sells, especially if you’re a kingmaker in a resource- rich country full of impoverished people.
“Our Brand Is Crisis” tells of the psychology of such political consultant peddlers of doom, image-makers cum puppeteers, illusionists convincing voters they want what they don’t need.
However, something strikes me as oddly familiar in this vibrant, black, political comedy version of Rachel Boynton’s documentary of the same name, filmed 11 years ago, about the marketing of the rich, arrogant, Bolivian President Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada for the 2002 election.
Minus the coca and the “chicha” corn beer, sans the bowler-hatted Aymara women and the llamas, Bolivia could have been the Philippines.
It’s the setting for the same kind of Third World political circus which we’ll soon see again in our own May presidential election.
The movie’s original inspiration was more brutal though.
Boynton’s 2005 documentary of an American political campaign strategist “Greenberg Carville Shrum” (GCS) opened with an anti-government riot shortly after Goni became president.
As gun shots fade, the camera zooms in on a dead boy on the steps of a building, seemingly asleep in the pool of his own blood.
Although GCS’ marketing techniques won the presidential seat for Goni in Bolivia, he resigned after just one year in office in the wake of the massacre of nearly a hundred protesters and went to exile in the US.
In the movie, Jane Bodine “Calamity Jane” (Sandra Bullock), a world-class political strategist, dropped out of the rat race after a scandal.
She retreated into a mountain cabin until a former associate sought her out to turn things around for Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), a hugely unpopular presidential candidate in Bolivia.
Jane returned to the fray upon learning that Castillo’s major opponent hired her bitter rival, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton). Rumors say she and Pat had a fling once. Worst, she lost four political campaigns to him.
Even the seeming hate-at-first sight between Jane and Pat in Bolivia carried the undercurrent of sexual foreplay.
“When we get back home, I will spend many hours pleasuring myself thinking of you,” he tells her with his Cheshire cat smile.
Jane decided to sell Castillo on a negative pitch, declaring Bolivia is a nation in crisis and only her man can save it. After all, he’s strong enough to slam his fists into the guy who smashed an egg on his head in public.
When Castillo cried crocodile tears for his live TV interviewers, Jane hit the roof with joy, it’s so laughable.
Anyway, the movie never lacked funny scenes, from the time Jane staggered out of the plane into the La Paz airport, fell off the stairs and went for her first client meeting with Castillo so debilitated, she was breathing from a mask and dragging an oxygen tank.
Sure, it’s overkill but credible. After all, La Paz has the world’s highest airport – more than 13,000 feet above sea level – and one gets mountain sickness at half that altitude.
Then there’s the bus race of Castillo and his opponent in the zigzag up the mountains in the Death Road of La Paz which kills 300 people per year. I was at the edge of my seat – until Jane bared her buttocks and thrust them out of the window.
Ironically, in this movie, everyone’s a puppet – from the aspiring kings to the king-makers – although they delude themselves to thinking otherwise.
“So much of politics and the election process is absurd, from big business to the media circus, the sound bites and the haircuts,” says director David Gordon Green.
“Politics has become entertainment and marketing. The movie exposes that absurdity, which gives the story its energy even as the characters face s difficult issues.”
“This isn’t a partisan thing. You can stand on either side and see it – the crazy amount of money involved and the bull shit that goes on,” adds producer Grant Heslov. “It’s something that has always interested us, the idea of winning at whatever cost. In the case of Jane, the cost is her soul.”
“Jane feels her life is being navigated by other people,” was how Director David saw it.
“We meet her at a vulnerable moment where she’s stepped away from the industry that has brought her success. Then she’s summoned back into action like a gunslinger. She feels misguided in her impressive skill set and she’s not proud of them anymore. She tests her ethics and her motivations while forging ahead to get a man she barely knows elected president.”
Interestingly, Grant reveals that in the early version of the script, the part of the lead strategist was male. After Sandra Bullock read it, they realized it could be a great role for a woman. So, they changed the hero’s gender.
And while true events depicted in Boynton’s 2005 documentary inspired the movie, “We had to create our own story,” according to Sandra.
As for the presidential candidate, Joaquim played Castillo brilliantly. “He captured that toughness and machismo, along with Castillo’s sense of entitlement while alluding to aspects of a man we may never know,” the producer acknowledged.
Sandra agreed. “It’s clear Castillo hasn’t been an angel. But Joaquim made Castillo someone who’s both endearing and repulsive. He gave the role an element of power and depth.”
“The film is not as much about politics as it is about people and what drives them,” she explained. “You see the comedy and the absurdity, the pain and chaos caused by people who just want to win and you think, if it was you, would you be strong enough to get off the carousel?”
“Sandra knows what kind of weight to bring to a role like this. She’s got grit,” Billy Bob said of Jane.
Conversely, “Billy Bob was the perfect choice for Pat because he can say the nastiest things and you still love him,” the Director pointed out.
“There’s a very specific quality and charisma that comes with a great actor that, no matter what he does, you know you’re going to forgive him just a little. We wanted an actor who could be a formidable counterpart for Sandra, someone with gravitas and wit. And that smile that lets him off the hook.”
“Jane and Pat are chess players moving real people around the board,” Billy Bob went on. “Pat Candy is so confident and so good at what he does, he gets bored easily. He has to stir things up to keep himself interested. When he sees Jane, he thinks, ‘Good, now I have someone to play with.’”
“Pat is convinced he taught Jane everything she knows and delights in anticipating her next move,” Director David explained.
Consequently, they dig deep and elevate each other’s game. If he scores a photo op for his camp, she undercuts it. She organizes a rally and he sabotages the coverage. He floats a damning rumor and she turns it to her advantage. And so it goes, riding the polls and counting down the hours to Election Day.
For all their similarities, professional and personal connections, David contends that the weight of their troubled relationship rests on their fundamental divide.
“Pat Candy is someone for whom self-interest will always come first, as long as he’s successful and doing what he’s good at. Even if he’s doing things that may challenge the political climate or the culture of a country, he’ll fly home afterwards and sleep comfortably in his own bed. He has no problem with that. But Jane is someone who takes things more personally and tosses and turns when she feels she’s doing something wrong.”
But after everything is said and done, “Political consultants are like actors,” Billy Bob summed up.
“Sometimes you do things because it’s something you love. Other times you do it because you’re a professional and you’re getting paid. So you go in there and turn it on in that moment.”