Mr. Smith Goes to Washington featured a young, authentic Jimmy Stewart who does battle with the corrupt political machine. Many decades later, that hardened view of politicians (and the machine that gets them elected) has not changed. David Gordon Green’s loosely fictionalized take on a 2005 documentary by Rachel Boynton doesn’t attempt to change any minds about the political process. Green begins the film with an off-screen journalist interviewing Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock), who prompts Jane to explain where her inspiration for her work comes from. Jane responds “When I started in this business, my heroes were politicians and leaders. Then I met them.”
Comfortably settled in a mountainside cabin, “Calamity” Jane has exiled herself after a few defeats on the campaign trail, but (Ann Dowd) aims to recruit her anyway. Jane relents when she is offered the chance to head a last-ditch effort to put former president Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) back in office. This presidential election comes at a crucial time for Bolivia; the country is war-torn and in dire need of leadership to make it past the breaking point. Unfortunately, Castillo isn’t that charismatic leader. As a member of the ruling class Castillo doesn’t appeal to Bolivian voters. He takes no stances on relevant issues and fumbles when trying to articulate them.
Needless to say Jane has her work cut out for her. A current fourth place finish doesn’t seem to bother Castillo, his candidacy might just be out of boredom. And boredom is what plagues Our Brand is Crisis for far too long of the film’s running time. Jane spends a majority of time early on bothered by altitude sickness, and failing at interacting with the local Bolivians. It’s standard fare for a broad comedy, but not exactly what one has in mind when watching a political satire. Our Brand is Crisis develops a pulse only when many-time rival and one-time lover Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton) steps into the film. Jane and Pat have stood toe-to-toe on “three of four” elections and she’s lost every match, but this time will be different.
With renewed purpose, Jane goes back to her old ways of chain-smoking and using stunts to cut the lead of Castillo’s main opponent. Jane revels in playing hardball against Pat, and when Bullock and Thornton do battle, the film is at its most energetic. Yet, the critique of U.S. interventionism and the mercenary nature of Jane’s work goes toothless as the end nears. Our Brand is Crisis exists almost entirely on cynicism, so a retreat from the film’s potent message, in favor of a simplistic ending, feels like a sucker punch. Very surprising for a film produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov.
Sandra Bullock almost single-handedly gives audiences a reason to identify with Jane, but she is chief among the villains in the world landscape. Credit should go to whoever decided to cast America’s sweetheart to play a ruthless political operative. It’s a subversive measure designed to draw those ignorant of reality to the cinema. As for the rest of the cast, Anthony Mackie gets a nice speech to make, but the ensemble (Scoot McNairy, Ann Dowd, Zoe Kazan) goes largely wasted.
Political satire is always a hard sell and Our Brand is Crisis will be no different. Comedy is hard to find in a situation where complete apathy overrules the will of people who want a say in how their own country is ran. Worse, the film comes to life too late before selling out for a happy, Hollywood ending.