Exotic location notwithstanding, Rachel Boynton’s riveting political documentary Our Brand Is Crisis is a sequel to the Clinton-era campaign vérité, The War Room. Call it spin-meisters abroad: Boynton chronicles the further adventures of ace political strategist James Carville and his associates at GCS as guns for hire in the 2002 Bolivian election. Our Brand Is Crisis, which had its local premiere at the last edition of New Directors/New Films, opens with the October 2003 riots that brought down the government of President Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada, then flashes back one year earlier to Goni on the hustings: Addressing a resplendently color- coordinated (and inexplicably pink) rally, the candidate—a wealthy, American- educated businessman and former president—announces his plan to resolve Bolivia’s current economic crisis. Backstage, he’s calling his inside-the-beltway advisers for new talking points.
As characterized by GCS operative (and former Clinton pollster) Jeremy Rosner, the American outfit is a “full-service political consulting firm” with an aggressive neo-liberal point of view. Carville and company are idealistic globalizationists advocating a brand of “progressive market democracy.” Given Bolivia’s three-year-long recession, Goni’s advisers decide that his “brand” should be crisis; to help establish the point, they try out ads and slogans on focus groups, while orchestrating one daily photo op for the candidate, designed for him to “plant his flag” on the issues of jobs and corruption.
The problem is that the badly trailing Goni is a familiar product. Albeit a reformer, he has the problem of running for president of a country—the poorest in South America—where half the electorate hates him. Goni did use privatization and foreign investment as a means to create social programs, but he also presided over increased unemployment and is viewed as an arrogant oligarch who speaks Spanish with an American accent. Although there are 10 other presidential candidates, only two are serious adversaries. (Their brands, per Rosner, are “change.”) Dismissing the Quechua-speaking cocalero Evo Morales as a populist thug, Rosner decides to go negative on the surging front-runner, multimillionaire Manfred Reyes Villa, mayor of Bolivia’s third largest city. Stories are planted in the press and negative ads run on Reyes Villa’s mansions and military connections.
Boynton doesn’t provide a sense of how much Goni is spending, compared to his rivals; nor is it clear the degree to which his ads make use of the indigenous languages spoken by half the population. But as impoverished, colorful, and remote as Bolivia is—and as obvious as the conflict between the indigenous masses and the Spanish elite may be—GCS strategy brings our own brand of democracy into bold relief. Everything is character, not in a moral but fictional sense. To add to the studio flavor, wide-eyed, avid Jeremy Rosner has a startling resemblance to Ben Stiller. (Goni is more the Jonathan Winters type.) James Carville is, of course, already a media star. Midway through the movie, he delivers an extended, and shrewdly self-deprecating, advertisement for himself. Among other things, he compares a campaign to sex: “You never know when it’s going to peak.”
The beleaguered Reyes Villa goes strategically anti-American; Goni stays on message (only changing his outfit for a new TV ad) and then ineptly attempts a Clintonian stunt in selectively acknowledging his past mistakes. Still, the negatives are depressing Reyes Villa’s numbers and Morales has received a boost, at the front-runner’s expense, after he’s attacked by the American ambassador as a potential Bin Laden. (“What an idiot!,” Carville says of the diplomat.) Although the election results are a foregone conclusion, the campaign turns into a horse race. Our Brand Is Crisis manages to be remarkably suspenseful with Goni slipping ahead and his rivals Morales and Reyes finishing in a virtual tie.
From the perspective of 2006, it’s obvious that Morales—who rose from fringe candidate to near victor and three years later was elected Bolivia’s first Indian president—was the real winner. Goni’s store-bought 22.5 percent plurality was scarcely a mandate, and after he raised taxes six months later, there were riots in the streets of La Paz: “Gringo asshole step down!” He did, but only after 70 demonstrators were shot dead, and has since relocated to Washington, D.C. There, Boynton interviews a sober Rosner. Musing over Goni’s fall, Rosner allows that he and his colleagues had an insufficient grasp of Bolivian history. (See this movie, however, and you’ll get some idea of the conditions that brought Morales to power.)
That’s only one way in which the well-meaning Rosner is hoisted on his own petard. Late in the 2002 campaign, when the polls begin to swing Goni’s way, Rosner excitedly praises voter “rationality.” It’s natural to see democracy as reasonable, at least when the people are voting your brand.