“If you want to see the girl next door, go next door,” said Joan Crawford. And that’s why we have movie stars. They look better than the girl next door, they make the tribulations of everyday existence seem exciting, and they get us to shell out $15 for a movie ticket (current NYC prices). One of our best and brightest movie stars is Sandra Bullock, currently headlining Our Brand is Crisis (2015).
Based on a 2005 documentary by Rachel Boynton (also called Our Brand is Crisis), the new movie has Sandra Bullock playing Jane, a retired political consultant dragged into a presidential election in Bolivia. Her motivation for jumping into the campaign is a chance to get some payback from rival strategist Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton). He’s a James Carville-esque Machiavellian spin-doctor, who spends all of his downtime trolling Jane with gross-out pickup artist lines. Whose candidate will emerge victorious? Will Pat hook up with Jane? Will Jane find redemption? Does anyone care about the Bolivian people, who will have to suffer the consequences of the election?
The last question is the most important, and it’s also the one that sinks the film. Spoiler alert: the answer is no, neither the characters nor the filmmakers really care about the people of Bolivia. They’re just background noise for most of the movie, a dueling ground for the Americans to play out their feud. Sure, there’s a scene with Jane getting down with the locals, who are surprisingly informed about the International Monetary Fund, but it doesn’t connect to anything: Jane doesn’t have a big epiphany or gain any sympathy for the voters. It’s just there to soften an appalling character, like the shots of Bullock being adorably clumsy and nauseous. None of this really succeeds in making the lead likable, and all that’s left is a movie about characters so wretched that it’s impossible to care what happens to them.
Okay, two political strategists – we’ll make one jaded, and the other a narcissist. With Hollywood scriptwriting this lazy, going to see the girl next door trumps buying a ticket and seeing movie stars. Why see Billy Bob Thornton play a James Carville-like character when you can see James Carville himself at work? Our Brand is Crisis, the documentary, shows the actual presidential campaign the Hollywood movie is based on, and it’s a superior movie in every respect. There’s no phoney-baloney feud, no movie stars seeking redemption, just actual slimy campaign strategists plying their trade. Carville is a gleeful admitted snake-oil salesman, and two minutes of him telling sheep-fucking jokes is better than an hour with Billy Bob Thornton’s pale imitation. But the real heart of the movie is watching Carville’s partners: are they cynics out to make a buck? Are they true believers? Rachel Boynton finds a truth about these people that completely eludes the makers of the newer movie: Carville’s partners are such good salesmen they buy into their own hype. Watching the campaign strategists talk themselves into believing their own lies is a great moment captured in the documentary that the Hollywood version never comes close to finding.
This is the second time that Billy Bob Thornton has played a character inspired by James Carville. His last go-round was in Primary Colors (1998) as a character called Richard Jemmons. And just like Our Brand is Crisis, the fictionalized version of James Carville wasn’t half as much fun as the real thing. The documentary The War Room (1993), with actual James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, kicks all sorts of ass on Primary Colors, the Hollywood version of the same campaign. Rent these movies, and both versions of Our Brand is Crisis, and have a James Carville film festival. Or, you know, poke your eyes out with a stick, whatever is less painful.