Our Brand Is Crisis Movie Review
The election documentary is a rich field for the non-fiction genre, melding the fly-on-the-wall recordings of nuts-and-bolts decision-making - all those backroom discussions normally never seen by the electorate - with the built-in drama of an impending popular contest. With her first feature release, director Rachel Boynton has chosen her subject perfectly and handles it just about as well, landing Our Brand is Crisis in the company of films like The War Room and the more lighthearted Journeys with George.
Like in most films of this kind, the candidate himself is not the star, not even close. It's instead his gringo handlers, the hot-shot D.C. boys there to lend their brand of magic to Goni's campaign. The consultants all hail from the firm GCS (Greenville, Carville and Shrum), which identifies itself as a "progressive" consultancy, that is, they'll work for candidates all across America and the world but only for the ones whom they believe line up at least somewhat with their own belief system. Given that the star of the firm (and inevitably the film itself, given his driving urgency and off-color jokes) is the bullet-headed Carville, GCS's values favor a Clintonian and Blair-ite middle-road blend of "progressive" politics and market economics. In Goni, GCS feels they have found the ideal candidate, a stalwart and distinguished-looking establishment guy - he already served as president from 1993 to 1997 - whose ideals are democratic, "market-based and modern but with broad benefits." What Boynton ably highlights, however, is how detached from reality GCS's impressions really are.
From the start, it's clear that Goni is the wrong man for the job. Raised in Washington by his Bolivian exile parents, he projects an aura of utter arrogance and condescension from the get-go, saying the common Bolivian people don't need candid talk on economic matters and referring to indigenous protestors as spoiled children. It's those some commoners and protestors, of course, who will topple Goni's presidency and later sweep the Hugo Chavez-esque populist Evo Morales into power.
Although Boynton's stated intentions for making the film point to a commendable desire to raise awareness about how American-style brand marketing is infiltrating the political process all over the world - GCS alone has consulted on elections in everywhere from Ireland to Israel - she doesn't play it too heavy-handed here. With perhaps one exception (Tad Devine, GCS's media-bubble-blind ad campaign specialist whose American-style negative ads backfire on them), the GCS guys come off as surprisingly decent but misguided policy and process wonks who genuinely think they're backing the right horse, even as indigenous Bolivians march and focus group after focus group tells them their candidate is arrogant and out of touch. Where Our Brand is Crisis is most damning is in its portrait of Goni, whose decisions in the 1990s to open up the nation and its vast natural gas resources to foreign investment and control were vastly unpopular and painted him as an out-of-touch gringo oligarch who was about as Bolivian as his consultants.
As a portrait of day-to-day campaigning, Our Brand is Crisis is almost without peer. Boynton's camera seems practically invisible as the GCS team debates strategy with surprising candidness, hammering home their idea that Bolivia is in crisis and Goni's the guy to solve it - even if he seems less engaged in the details of campaigning than his hired guns do. What the film also ably shows, in its footage of the protests that convulsed Bolivia over the past few years, is how drastically wrong (if honestly intentioned) mistakes made by a band of consultants from an office in Washington can contribute to bloodshed and near societal collapse in a Third World nation whose politics can't be reduced to the same Beltway template now being exported around the world.
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