I’m not a fan of “White Savior” movies – you know, white person takes on a POC issue (homelessness, poor academics, the democratic process of a small nation) and with Good Old American Ingenuity™, lives are turned around, the championship is saved, and everyone Learns a Lesson, because white people.
Our Brand Is Crisis falls within this trope (‘Merica!), but it also takes a wobbly left, leaving the audience just a little unsure who the good guys are. It’s not about altruism or the better man or doing the right thing. This is about showing the natives how it’s done, despite and because of their own traditional methods (which have worked, you know, forever). It’s election time in Bolivia and the U.S. State Department has a horse in this race, so right off the bat, you know someone is going home in tears.
Caveat: I like Sandra Bullock. I think she’s funny and talented and no one does pissed “eff you right in the eye socket” glares like she does. She plays a retired, so close to washed up it’s all semantics political consultant Jane Bodine, who relocates herself for peace and solitude. Hanging out in the middle making as little noise as possible suits her. Disrupting her self-imposed exile is the U.S. State Department, hiding behind a political strategy firm. They lure her in for one more big score. Should she succeed, she’ll redeem her good name and be a hero (savior) and should things go sideways, then she’s a ready-made scapegoat (disposable). Jane is not refined – which is just a nice way of saying she’s not supposed to be a Bond Girl flawlessly swapping clips from an automatic tube of lipstick concealed in her bra. She feels real and discouraged and very out of place from the moment she lands in Bolivia.
Jane’s both needed and backed into a corner. She knows the game being played and she’s nearly sure she can win. She’s not perfect in many ways (which makes her delightfully human), but she’s savvy and smart and upon meeting her client, she knows he doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Bolivia to win. She and her client, Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), approach their jobs in the same fashion – their hearts simply aren’t in it. They both know they’re scapegoats for a bigger cause, and despite the common sentiment, knowing you’ll be thrown under a bus doesn’t make a person play harder to win – just makes them try a little less.
Her political counterpart, Pat Candy, played by Billy Bob Thorton, plays the same game but much better. He’s in it for the glory and his swagger tells you everything you need to know about him – confident, arrogant, and his opponents and conquests are just another notch on the $100 belt. He steers his candidate, like he steers Jane towards his own objective, manipulating and capitalizing on the fears and doubts of each.
I’ll say it without shame – he’s naughty and it’s hot. He’s a smooth talker and he sounds good and you want him to keep talking because he’s got that accent and that stare but you also want to power wash your eardrums when he leaves. Jane and Pat have an uncomfortable history that spools out between them with a little thing Hollywood is missing in a lot of movies called chemistry. You don’t know what went down between them, but you blush a little when you think about it.
Along for the ride is young poli-sci major-turned Buddhist-turned consultant, Ben (Anthony Mackie), who understands how the game is played, has seen the game played by others, and still believes it can be played cleanly and without drama (hahahahahaha *wipes tear*). Second to Jane, you can relate to him because why on earth can’t politicians just stick to the facts to win elections? Reality being what it is (you know, all real like), he seems constantly disappointed that politics is full of politicians and they have a tendency to lie.
This movie could go all sorts of ways: will Jane and Pat fall in to bed and compromise both campaigns? Will the deeply personal nature of each consultants’ agendas get in in the way of the main objective? How much of Jane’s Past will bite her on her ass when she needs her confidence the most?
Don’t sweat it. The movie isn’t meant to be that deep. It’s your standard broken character, challenge, conflict, climb, setback, climb, resolution, empowering epilogue movie that is meant to be enjoyed for the smart laughs, the personal challenges, and the clear-cut protagonist you feel good about cheering for…
And there’s your twist. You want Jane to win because you like her, but at the back of your mind, maybe it would be better for the world if she didn’t. I don’t mean that like she’s consulting for the Devil, but Americans playing political chess in vulnerable countries tastes like someone spiked the mimosa’s with black licorice. It doesn’t hit you at first, but that slimy taste at the back of your throat is only going to get worse.
This isn’t a heavy drama that could leave a lot of uninterested people wishing they’d paid money to see Jem and the Holograms. It’s a character-driven story that focuses on the people behind the news, the acts of treachery behind the candidates, and why you will know when it’s time to change paths. This is not political satire, nor is it a parody. While based on an actual 2002 geo-political power play for all the beans in Bolivia, history only serves as a setting and inciting incident to bring the characters together. This could have easily been set anywhere to bring two equally matched rivals together and that’s why it works for me.