TORONTO – The Bolivian election of 2002 is the focus of two films with the same title. The 2005 documentary Our Brand is Crisis, was directed by Rachel Boynton, her first feature, and the newer narrative film with the same title stars Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton, produced by George Clooney (who was considered for the star role), directed by David Gordon Green and premiered at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.
Both films show the extent to which America influences and meddles in foreign elections. Greenberg Carville Shrum (GCS), an international political consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., was hired by former president and now unpopular candidate, Gonzalo (Goni) Sánchez de Lozada, to boost his chances of winning a new term after severe anti-privatization protests racked the country in 2000. The neoliberal endorses globalization and privatizing as a solution to saving the worst economy in Latin America.
Boynton had unlimited privileged access to people in power, as she did in her extraordinary 2013 doc, Big Men, which exposed a Texas oil company’s exploitation of the Nigerian Niger Delta. In Our Brand is Crisis she followed closely the inner workings of James Carville, Tad Devine and the GCS consultants as they brought about a miracle by getting Lozada elected against the will of the people. We watch the lizard-like Carville, whom we all remember as Clinton’s election consultant, and later Mandela’s, work his magic by creating a “crisis” scenario, urging voters to defend the status quo candidate, and reject candidates like socialist Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party who want to expel the IMF and nationalize the oil industry. Several days before Bolivians went to the voting booths, U.S. ambassador Manuel Rocha warned the Bolivian electorate that if they voted for Morales the U.S. would cut off foreign aid and close its markets to the country. Morales nonetheless received nearly 21% of the vote, putting him only a couple of points behind Sánchez de Lozada.
The film seemingly takes no position but simply exposes the many underhanded ways that consultants use deceptive commercials and scare tactics to get their candidate elected. Because of Boynton’s privileged access, she presented her rough cut to the bigwigs at GCS who proclaimed it “fair,” but apparently didn’t like their depiction in the film. The ensuing protests and violence that followed the election, which GCS takes no credit for, eventually forced the wealthy Lozada to resign. Many feel that he was isolated from the public and never should have been elected in the first place, except for the excessive campaigning by GCS.
The new version of Our Brand Is Crisis is a star vehicle for Sandra Bullock, who assumes the Carville role with a vengeance, and although it uses the Bolivian election and the GCS involvement as the basis for the story, makes some major plot alterations. Here it’s the story of a powerful businesswoman, “Calamity” Jane Bodine, who eventually got burnt out after losing four times in campaigns against her arch-rival, Pat Candy, a baldheaded Carville look-alike. She is drawn out of retirement when she finds out he’s representing her opponent in Bolivia. The film is a battle of campaign consultants. Many of the lines and actions are taken from the 2005 doc, but for those who know the realities of Bolivia, it’s confusing when she assumes the Carville character, yet is competing with another strategist who resemble Carville.
There are many comical scenes in the entertaining film, and Bullock stretches her image by playing a highly shady character who cares little about how she looks and how her actions are perceived.
This film shines a light on political strategists whose faulty definition of democracy is “opening countries for American exploitation and globalization,” even if they sincerely believe this will solve the country’s problems. Ironically, their arch-nemesis, Evo Morales, was eventually elected in 2005 by a landslide, the first Native to be elected president in Bolivian history. He immediately nationalized the oil industry and legalized coca, and has won the majority support of his people ever since. This caused a consultant at GCS to reason that apparently Bolivians didn’t want democracy because they rejected globalization. As if they are synonymous.