REVIEW: Our Brand Is Crisis

21 02 2016

Admittedly, the circumstances under which I saw David Gordon Green’s “Our Brand Is Crisis” might have exerted a particularly strong influence on my reaction. Had I gone to see it in theaters back in October, I could have done so with the luxury of writing off the candidacy of Donald Trump as a political sideshow. But now, watching at home in mid-February, that farce has become a force in American democracy with undeniable ramifications for our country.

“Our Brand Is Crisis” was conceptualized, shot and likely finished before the Trump phenomenon came about, so I do not wish to imply in any way that the film paved the way for such a demagogue. But given how few people saw it theatrically, most viewers will encounter the film with the presence or specter of the Donald firmly planted in the public consciousness. Cultural products may not substantially shape our society, but they can reflect its values in intentional or unexpected ways. “Our Brand Is Crisis” feels like a film in the latter camp.

Sandra Bullock stars as as political strategist “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a character who is the polar opposite of Trump in many ways. She is a for-hire, behind-the-scenes operative, obsessively focused on the minutiae of getting her candidates into first place. Mixing intellectual prowess with practical problem-solving, Jane in her zone is truly a force to be reckoned with. For that precise reason, the campaign for a struggling Bolivian presidential contender brings her off the sidelines and out of retirement.

Sandra Bullock Our Brand Is Crisis

But those differences from the current Republican frontrunner (at the time this piece was posted) are mostly surface-level. At their core, Bodine and Trump both manipulate the public in insidious ways. They twist narratives, deny facts and warp reality. In “Our Brand Is Crisis,” Bodine supposedly introduces Bolivia to negative campaigning, which was previously unheard of in the country. In order to win, she drags the other candidates down into the mud for a nasty fight that she can have on her own terms.

“It’s just a movie, and she is just a character,” I thought to myself while watching the film. (Although, to be fair, “Our Brand Is Crisis” is suggested by a documentary of the same name.) Yes, Calamity Jane is fictional. But it’s hard to suspend my disbelief, shed by reservations and root for a character when so many of her ilk in reality have dumbed down the voting public and allowed the ascendancy of a wannabe authoritarian tyrant. By lowering the level of discourse, these political consultants have upped the level of deceit and made it far too easy for elections to move from being the heart of the democratic system to a force that undermines democracy itself.

Like my reaction to “The Wolf of Wall Street” back in 2013, I encounter difficulty finding entertainment, escape or identification in a morally ambiguous protagonist when their film seems blind and indifferent to the pains of the real world. When it came time for Jane to feel remorse and seek redemption, I felt that I could not go along with the movie just handing her absolution.

And the worst part of experiencing “Our Brand Is Crisis” is that this gut feeling makes me turn against my own deeply-held morals. I believe everyone deserves forgiveness from a power higher than myself, should they show humble penitence. And yet, watching Jane realize the magnitude of her devious tactics, I found myself hoping she would not receive any kind of pardon.

But perhaps that’s the true triumph of insidious political manipulators like Trump and Jane. They do not only bring out in the worst in the people who support them. They also bring out the worst in the people who oppose them. B-2stars

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