This review was updated on April 5, 2005
Rachel Boynton’s debut pic is a fascinating docu on the Bolivian presidential campaign of Gonzales Sanchez de Lozada (aka Goni), an unpopular candidate whose run for office was flamboyantly stage-managed by the U.S. spin team of James Carville and company. “Our Brand Is Crisis” proves as entertaining as the earlier “The War Room,” which also featured Carville, but is more somber. The peculiarly American equation of democracy and capitalism seems to take on an especially sinister, even lethal turn when it is exported to foreign climes. In light of President Bush’s ongoing militaristic crusade for American-style democratization abroad, “Brand” has a real shot at theatrical release.
Where Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s “War Room” thrived on being inside the political hub, Boynton’s more subdued “Brand” shares its subjects’ outsider status. Encapsulated statistics and factoids about the situation in Bolivia are all the filmmakers and the film’s star spinmeisters have to go on. Nevertheless, this knowledge is probably more data than Goni, a rich man who has spent much of his life in the States, speaks gringo-accented Spanish and has already been booted out of Bolivia’s highest office once before, has ever bothered to access.
Two months before the election, Goni is behind by double-digits in an 11-way race, trailing Manfred Reyes Villa, the middle-of-the-road front-runner, and Evo Morales, a cocoa farmer and populist party leader. Enter Jeremy Rosner, soft-spoken pollster and chief strategist for the firm of Greenberg, Carville and Strum.
Carville then flies in for a couple of cameos to deliver such pitchy aphorisms as, “A campaign is like intercourse — you never know when it’s going to peak.” Carville admits he’s there to lend celebrity approval to other people’s work. The Madison Avenue advertising lingo that sounds rational and cultured when spouted by Rosner and associates, takes on a huckster twang when spewed by the ragin’ Cajun.
The ghost of Bill Clinton haunts the film, his bygone presidency the one-size-fits-all pattern for progressive global leadership. Unfortunately, the pattern is far beyond the reach of clueless wannabe Goni. The American spin team quickly settles on portraying him as the lesser of three evils. Using fear as their trump card, they confidently push the Goni brand: Yes, he is partly responsible for the country’s crisis, but in the hands of a corrupt, inexperienced leader, the situation could get much worse.
A smear campaign and bites of negative advertising are smoothly launched against moderate Manfred, although an ill-advised speech by the U.S. ambassador, likening Morales to Osama Bin Laden, provides a temporary surge for the populist candidate.
Pic’s most hilarious moments come when Goni, whose learning curve is a flat line, is forced to incorporate concern for the common people and remorse for past missteps into his speeches, and he sabotages his handlers by venturing into unscripted territory.
Director Boynton, privy to unseen day-to-day manipulations of public opinion by fair means or foul, shifts tones artfully once Goni is in office and his once-funny gaffes prove to have bloody consequences, as mounting protests against him are met with mounting repression.