Opening just months after the victory of Bolivia’s populist, pro-coca president Evo Morales, Rachel Boynton’s chronicle of that country’s 2002 elections, Our Brand Is Crisis, is less about the rise of the South American left than about U.S. jingoism and the attempt to export Clintonian neoliberalism to a place that doesn’t particularly need it. Crisis follows James Carville’s hired-gun consultants as they attempt to remodel the image of Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada from American-educated technocrat to man of the people (see J. Hoberman’s review). The film’s milieu is one of spin and salesmanship. Meeting the confident, talkative 32-year-old director, it’s easy to see how she might have secured the access to power so essential to her film while retaining her observers’ stance.
Never looking to update The War Room, Boynton says she was inspired by the PBS doc A Force More Powerful to explore the role of U.S. consultants in global elections. Hoping to finish by the 2004 U.S. presidential elections, she abandoned her original plan to juxtapose three contests, and focused solely on Bolivia. Carville’s involvement there didn’t hurt. “Campaigns are inherently exciting,” says Boynton, “but the notion of someone like James Carville working in the Bolivian highlands is kind of hysterical, and automatically intriguing.”
She’s never far from the intrigue when graying, jet-lagged consultants default to corporate speak, or a jittery Carville swoops to recycle some shtick as the situation slides from bad to worse. Boynton says filming could be awkward: “When people are doing badly, they are less likely to want to be filmed. That wasn’t really true of Goni, but it was more true of the consultants.” She says it was actually Goni, a documentary filmmaker himself at one time, who championed her project. Looking back, she concedes, “If anybody on the movie had been able to predict the future, I would never have been allowed into those rooms, and film poll presentations, and focus groups, and strategy meetings, and ad- making sessions.”
Captured by her lens, Goni is a gaffe machine, comparing the citizenry to children and complaining about the confetti at his whistle-stops. Focus groups of ordinary citizens, convened by consultant Jeremy Rosner, function as a kind of moral chorus whose demands for reforms are consistently unmet. After violent civil unrest prevails, these quiet sessions take on even more relevance. Asked whether she felt she was being spun at times—as when Rosner, in a post-election chat with Boynton, unspools a personal apologia—she says, “They’re spin doctors. That’s their job. And they’re very consistent. I’ve been on panels with Jeremy, and I’ve had him sit next to me and repeat verbatim things that I have him saying on tape. So yes, they have a method. That’s what the movie is about.” But ultimately, she says, she liked these guys, sometimes empathizing with them. “It’s a lot more complicated to make a film about people you like, who seem to be idealistic, who end up in a very complicated situation where things go really wrong. I’m interested in the complication.”
Boynton spent a year and a half in the editing room, honing the election narrative to illuminate deeper forces at play—idealism that tips into arrogance, U.S. exceptionalism that clouds judgment, insularity that prevents understanding. One of her struggles was in trying to convey the geographic reach of this particular neoliberal experiment. After interviewing scores of other consultants (including Dick Morris), she decided those clips would be too distracting. “I still regret the fact that I don’t have that scene with Jeremy sitting in a café in Romania,” says Boynton, “calling up Goni on his cell phone and saying, ‘I’ll be there in a week. Don’t worry.’ I really think it’s important to communicate that this is an international story. These guys work all over the world. It’s not just a story about Bolivia. It’s a story about our influence.”