Bullock bulldozes a pile of political cliché
David Gordon Green attempts dark satire by placing two American strategists in a South American bullring, but despite some sharp lines and sharper clothes, there’s no matador’s grace in this ritual slaughter
Our Brand is Crisis
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Joaquim de Almeida, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy
Directed by: David Gordon Green
Running time: 107 minutes
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
From the moment we birthed the idea of democracy, we created a world of perceived winners and losers – and with it, a contest that plays straight to ego.
For the candidate, there is a desire to “not be a loser” and for the voter, there is a desire to elect a slightly improved reflection of the self– someone like us, only better.
It’s all about seeing ourselves affirmed by external forces, and even the earliest political strategists understood these primal dynamics as evidenced by the now-famous letter written to Marcus Tullius Cicero by his younger brother, Quintus, in the summer of 64 BCE.
“Commentariolum Petitionis” (A Little Handbook of Electioneering) outlines campaign strategies still used to this day.
From “Flatter voters shamelessly” to “Give people hope,” Quintus understood you had to offer a sense of perfection without being arrogant, and you had to tell people what they wanted to hear – even if it meant lying through your teeth.
Screenwriter Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) no doubt read this Roman blueprint over the course of researching Our Brand is Crisis because it almost plays out each piece of advice scene by scene.
Using Sandra Bullock as the voice of Quintus in the role of Jane Bodine, Straughan and director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express) set the stage for a full-on moral and philosophical debate about the nature of the game.
Speaking to the camera in the opening frames, Jane tells us—and the unseen TV interviewer–she quit politics because she no longer believed in the cause. Dispirited by the ambient corruption and two-faced candidates, she pulled out entirely to make pottery, and live in a rustic cabin.
It’s a cute introduction to our perpetually cute star, but Bullock doesn’t exploit her cuddly quality – on the surface. As Jane Bodine, Bullock dons the minimal but classy working wardrobe of a DC professional: long coats, cropped trousers, brogues and flowing blouses over tailored waistlines.
For fashionistas, it’s like window-shopping where Bullock is every mannequin. For politicos, it’s like getting an all-access pass to the war room.
Director Green could have gone for classic tragedy, pulled on Shakespeare’s rich cloth and draped democracy’s coffin with the flag of his choice. But like so many of his peers, he elects satire instead, hoping to give his audience a fun ride through the minefield of a morally bankrupt Bolivian presidential campaign.
Running far behind his competitors, Bodine’s candidate (Joaquim de Almeida) isn’t even a dark horse. He’s a dead pony, which is why she’s canvassed to lead the campaign, and stage a personal comeback.
Of course she hesitates. And of course, the minute she gets on board, his numbers start to improve. The only thing standing in her way is a ghost from the past: Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), a US strategist hired by a competing candidate and an old foe of Bodine’s.
At first, you think there could be sparks between the two – if only because he looks like James Carville and she seems part Mary Matalin, but Green doesn’t get too goofy, though he flirts with a hint of screwball.
Our Brand is Crisis has a social message that sits at its core like deep fried dough, and it uses the character Bodine to spit it out as she transforms from passive cynic to active cynic, and eventually, recovering believer.
What Green dissects beneath his movie microscope is the cynicism suggested by the title itself: That campaigns have a “brand” and the fate of the people is in the hands of marketing experts.
It’s not anything we don’t already know. Other movies have tackled the very same cynicism with different degrees of satirical success, and for the most part, the writing was a lot sharper.
But the other films didn’t have Sandra Bullock playing strong and vulnerable at the same time, and because her performance is so dynamic, we can’t help but get caught up in her classy but bedraggled energy.
More importantly, she’s one of the only characters that’s likable – without being saccharine.
Bullock brings just the right balance of empathy and humor, and she finds a graceful foil in Thornton, who keeps the Mephistophelian energy on simmer and sells us on a guy who isn’t really evil – he’s just playing a dirty game.
Together, these two talents get enough space to tango, and it’s an entertaining dance to watch because both characters are trying to lead – stepping on each other’s egos at every turn, and forcing us to look at the toe-breaking, nail-pulling carnage that is the modern political campaign.
THE EX-PRESS, October 30, 2015