***1/2 out of ****
Rated R
for strong language

, some sexual references, and brief partial nudity
Released: October 30, 2015
Runtime: 107 minutes
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Joaquim de Almeida, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, Zoe Kazan

Political satire is at its best, not when it’s broadly mocking the dysfunction and corruption of politics but, rather, when it depicts the absurdity of politics with an eerie authenticity. The line between the two approaches can be a thin one. Our Brand Is Crisis deftly lands on the better side of it.

Loosely based on the 2005 documentary of the same title that followed former Clinton operatives as they consulted a South American Presidential candidate, this fictionalized adaptation doesn’t lose any of its sharp, damning bite despite being intentionally, and highly, entertaining. It displays a deep, piercing insight into how campaigns are run, in the details of how (justifiably) cynical and paranoid they can get, how creatively cunning the best strategists are, how they can turn a candidate’s worst trait into an asset, and how they work to get inside – and mess with – the heads of their opponents.  Sandra Bullock continues her career’s peak phase with another impressive lead performance (one originally written for producer George Clooney, actually) that allows her to display as much of her range as any role ever has.

Jane Bodine (Bullock), dubbed “Calamity” for her effectively reckless style, is a former campaign guru and recovering alcoholic now living a reclusive rural life. Her carefully protected Zen state is disrupted when former colleagues pull out all the stops to lure her into saving the languishing election campaign of a Bolivian Presidential hopeful. Their efforts fail until they drop some irresistible bait: their candidate’s leading opponent is being advised by Jane’s professional nemesis Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, continuing his own career rebirth – following TV’s Fargo – in sensational fashion), the sly slimeball who handed Jane the losing streak that drove her into retirement. It’s an offer she can’t refuse.

Director David Gordon Green (whose work has evolved from meditative indie films like All The Real Girls to studio comedies like Pineapple Express and back again) takes us on a near-breakneck pace through the machinations of campaign strategizing, advertising, and maneuvering. Information often flies by at a faster pace than we can fully process, but its enough to give us the gist while keeping things moving forward at a propulsive clip.

Green never allows the film to get bogged down in noble, self-important speechifying. Instead, he chooses to either pop the bubble of that trope in hilarious ways, or plays moments of strategic brilliance as ruthless (rather than principled) bursts of inspiration. A movie like this takes something like The West Wing, chews it up, and then spits it out. These cold, calculating operatives aren’t in it to change the world. They’re in it to win it.

While hilariously indicting, Our Brand Is Crisis is played almost entirely straight, rarely as a comedy. And even when it is (like during a race between campaign buses, or a late night hotel room party that goes playfully off the rails) they’re forgivable, entertaining interludes that still emerge from the characters rather than forced, contrived plot-beats. But on the whole, what makes Our Brand Is Crisis so funny is how realistic it is. It’s also what makes it compelling.

The truth is that the best campaigns – and candidates – have to be calculating, even merciless. It’s not about communicating the truth; it’s about crafting narratives. People say they hate negative ads, but these strategists know that negative ads are the only things that ever move the needle or shift public perception. This film examines those pesky realities.

But then it also goes a step further to show that, for all the cutthroat “win at all costs” machinations that tear people down, at the end of it all things rarely ever change – regardless of which candidate wins or loses. In its final stretch, Our Brand Is Crisis creates a crisis for Jane, one of purpose and identity, giving this jaundiced sendup some philosophical – even spiritual – reflection to go with it.

Our Brand Is Crisis challenges the conventional sentiment that government can change things. It suggests instead that perhaps fighting for your political ideals is best done outside the realm of politics. The victories won may be marginal at best, but at least they don’t cost you your soul.

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