Our Brand Is Crisis

2015 – USA

Director –
David Gordon Green

Starring – Sandra Bullock , Billy Bob Thornton, Joaquim de Almeida

Words: J. Wood

David Gordon Green’s political satire sees Sandra Bullock star as ‘Calamity’ Jane Bodine, a formerly great political strategist haunted by her past deeds for her job. Parachuted in by the American government to help an ailing Bolivian presidential candidate she finds herself up against her old adversary Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), seeing whether she can rediscover her former glories.

Our Brand Is Crisis is a film that has a crisis of confidence, and a crisis of identity. All the way throughout watching it I was struck both by how much I was gently entertained by the film yet at the same time how schizophrenic the film seemed to be in its tone. I do believe that it was meant to be a dark comedy, yet the comedy doesn’t quite have the darkness and in an effort to attain that air the film turns into more of a drama.

The film benefits brilliantly from the ever likeable presence of Sandra Bullock, an Oscar winning actress and genuine megastar who doesn’t often get the dues she so clearly deserves thanks to her sometimes dubious choice of material. While this is not the best film or role she has appeared in by quite some distance it is almost tailor made for her screen presence. At her very best Bullock for me is the female equivalent of George Clooney, immensely likeable and charming yet effortlessly able to convey disillusionment and despair. Here she makes the all too subtle bitterness of Jane come to the fore and add some real substance to the film, substance that the film quite possibly does not deserve. Given the character spends the first twenty minute of the film moping and suffering from Altitude Sickness Bullock still manages to pull off the unenviable task of making her a likeable central figure who the audience can side with, which makes the incredibly well written comedic moments all the more effective.

The script does feel weirdly over and under developed at certain points in the film, but the comedy takes the best moments hands down. Those who watched Top Gear in Bolivia a few years ago will know about the Death Road, a clifftop, narrow, primitive track. Seeing two campaign buses racing across this treacherous road in an effort to get to a rally first is a brilliant moment, but is not alone, with the interplay between the campaign background players always sharp and worth watching. The dramatic moments of the film are just not particularly well gelled in with this; Adam McKay and Charles Randolph took a serious subject in The Big Short and managed to craft a clever balance between the comedy and the drama, something that just never quite happens here. There are also a couple of scenes that come across very painfully as Americans coming into a Third World Country and solving all its problems, which left me feeling rather uneasy.

The writing of the supporting characters strangely veers from brilliant to very poor. Take the Presidential Candidate Castillo; played by Joaquim de Almeida there is a great interpretation of a political character here. This is a politician who has absolutely no business to be challenging for this presidency, he has absolutely no connection with his electorate and almost no idea how to arrest this slide. The easy way to show this would be to make him a clueless buffoon but Straughan writes him as an intelligent man just ill equipped to take on the challenge, and it is only when Bullock’s Bodine takes the reins that he turns it around. The portrayal of him by de Almeida is staggeringly good, capturing all the nuances of the character perfectly and, in his appearance in a chat show, a great moment of emotive acting. Conversely Billy Bob Thornton is strangely subdued as Pat Candy, Bullock’s main adversary. He is constantly referred to in the dialogue as some kind of Machiavellian figure of chaos and malice, and having seen his performance in Fargo Thornton seems perfect to convey this. Unfortunately, the way the character is written differs from how he is spoken about, he is a quipping constantly and just feels like an impotent force in the film, when he really needs to be a potent presence.

What really did surprise me was the direction of David Gordon Green, a director who has had one of the strangest careers in modern cinema, veering from thought provoking indie cinema to director for hire for Seth Rogen & Co., before moving back to less thought provoking indie cinema. This is strangely kinetic and alive filmmaking from Green, who directs the film in a fast moving way I would never have thought possible. He does a great job of capturing the feel of an exotic location, not a given by any means, and although much of this comes from his cinematographer and the brilliant score of David Wingo, it is still in my opinion Green’s best film for a long time.

There are numerous flaws in the film that have a notable effect on the film, but importantly they never affected or diminished my enjoyment of the film. It is an interesting subject, and a portrayal of it that is vastly improved from Clooney and Grant Heslov’s The Ides of March. Worth watching for Sandra Bullock alone, who is always a joy to behold, Our Brand Is Crisis may not have reached the heights the film’s lofty Oscar ambitions intended, but I would definitely give it a recommendation.