“Our Brand Is Crisis” is one of those smart political dramas that you wish would resonate with American audiences, but often only do so over time.
The prescient “Wag the Dog,” the incisive “Primary Colors” both opened to tepid receptions and weak box office, but over time have held up and grown cult followings.
“Our Brand Is Crisis,” which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on Friday night, may well turn out to follow a similar path. In the film, directed by David Gordon Green, Sandra Bullock plays “Calamity Jane” Bodine, a political consultant for hire, working on a presidential campaign in Bolivia.
With her bleached blonde hair and a f—-you facial expression, Jane is one smart, tough, cynical and angry politico. She quotes Warren Beatty and reads Nietzsche. (And Joseph Goebbels, as it turns out.) Down in South America, she’s working for the dark horse candidate, who isn’t a particularly nice guy (played by Joaquim de Almeida).
Her nemesis is another political operative working for the other side, Pat Candy (perfectly cast as Billy Bob Thornton). The two spar and exchange sexual innuendo while they play nasty pranks on each other. In one notable moment, the two sides race their campaign buses, and when Jane overtakes her opponent, she moons him.
The film is based on a 2005 documentary by Rachel Boynton about real-life political consultants Bob Shrum, Tad Devine and James Carville, who worked on the 2002 Bolivian presidential campaign.
Green took pains to say the film had been fictionalized, though producer George Clooney said the filmmakers got calls from the former candidates during shooting. The film languished in development for eight years, Clooney said, until Bullock called and said she wanted to play the main role, written for a man. Clooney and his partner Grant Heslov immediately agreed.
Bullock’s razor-sharp comic timing and deadpan expression works well with the dialogue in a screenplay by Peter Straughan. The room exploded in applause as the credits rolled, with Bullock getting a “Brava! Brava!” from the Toronto audience.
The title stems from Jane’s approach to winning votes, which involves scaring the Bolivian electorate into believing that they were in a full-blown crisis that only her candidate could manage.
But the process of delving into the Bolivian culture eventually pierces Jane’s hardened exterior — and reminds her why she got into politics in the first place.
It’s a taut, well-made piece. The only problem is that these kinds of small dramas — which only producers like Clooney get to make anymore at big studios like Warner Bros. — often get lost in theatrical release.
In politics, she says, “getting hurt is unavoidable.” True too for smart political dramas that depict their world.