David Gordon Green’s political comedy Our Brand Is Crisis opens with its central character—campaign strategist “Calamity” Jane Bodine, in a bravura performance by Sandra Bullock—sitting in a chair, giving a listless television interview. She looks tired, defeated. Asked what she believes in, she replies, “I could believe in a lot of things if the price was right.”
Scarcely a moment later, that conviction is tested as a Bolivian presidential campaign tries to lure Bodine out of self-imposed exile and back to work. Worn down by a series of high-profile defeats, Bodine has little interest in returning to politics—especially not for Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), the incumbent president who’s polling some 30 points down. “Who you gonna get to take on this shitbasket?” Bodine mutters. Then she’s told that an old rival, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton)—the same man who handed her all those crushing defeats—is running the opposition campaign. Grudgingly, Bodine takes the job, if only for the sake of revenge.
It’s a proper start to a redemption story, but director Green—who proved he has a gift for smart, character-driven comedy with 2008’s Pineapple Express—doesn’t immediately venture down that road. Instead, we get an escalating round of dirty tricks and mind games that would probably be less fun to watch if it weren’t for the smart decision to cast Bullock in a role that, according to Crisis co-producer George Clooney, was originally written for a male lead.
Crisis is based on the true story of the 2002 Bolivian presidential election, in which American consultancy Greenberg Carville Shrum used good old Yankee Doodle political maneuvering to win the election for Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. (That election was documented in a 2005 film, also called Our Brand is Crisis.) That story had strategist James Carville—played on film by Thornton for a second time, though Pat Candy is much sleazier and more menacing than Primary Colors’ Richard Jemmons. But Crisis doesn’t have a real-life analog for Bodine, which leaves Bullock free to create a terrific character from the ground up.
Bullock’s Bodine is kind of a wreck. She suffers from manic depression and haphephobia, smokes too much and is proudly, even defiantly amoral. (The film even puts an Ann Coulter-like blond wig on Bullock for good measure.) But she commands the room, and the film, because she knows when to hide her cards. Whenever Thornton’s Candy literally leans on Bodine, trying to get into her head (and her bed), Bullock maintains a sphinxlike calm. She never gets flustered and she never breaks down in private.
Perhaps some of the credit for Bodine’s resolve is due to screenwriter Peter Straughan, who in changing the gender of the story’s lead could have introduced crying jags, a tone-deaf romantic subplot—you know, the shit that women actors have had to bear since the invention of cinema. But Straughan didn’t add that stuff. And even if he had, it seems unlikely Bullock would have played it. More often than not, Bodine reacts to bad news by going quiet and still, with her eyes only hinting at her inner turmoil. Every word Bullock doesn’t say builds up her character.
By the way, the movie is funny. It doesn’t provide the belly laughs of Pineapple Express (save for one exciting chase sequence, which provides Bullock an inadvertent opportunity to put a bow on her long-ago breakout performance in Speed), but you get a few good chuckles out of it. And the emotional beats are honest and well earned.
Make no mistake, however: This is Bullock’s movie, not Green’s. While Crisis might have gotten made without her involvement, there would have been little point to it. She raises the dramatic tension of a low-stakes story and brings subtle layers to what a lesser talent would have played as a smug, pushy political wonk with a mouthful of Aaron Sorkin. Our Brand Is Crisis is an actor’s showcase through and through, featuring one of our very best.
Our Brand Is Crisis (R): ★★★✩✩