Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 47 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 4; Language 6; Sex /Nudity 2.
Our star rating: 3.5
A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin
Note: Spoilers in last two paragraphs.
Cynicism is the order of the day when it comes to politics, something that director David Gordon Green’s new film supports. I am old enough to remember how John F. Kennedy with his eloquent tongue and good intentions made politics seem like a high calling. Those days are long, long gone. For Sandra Bullock’s campaign manager “Calamity” Jane Bodine politics is an advertising campaign in which the candidate is the product and her job is to furbish an image that will lead people to “buy” (vote for) him. Image is everything; substance is, well maybe not nothing, but very much in the background.
Instead of an American campaign, Bodine’s is for the presidency of Bolivia. An uncharismatic politician given just the name of Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) is 28 points down in the polls, and so the American handlers he has hired to run his campaign lure Bodine out of her retirement. She had retreated to a hideaway in the Rockies after several of her campaigns had ended disastrously, hence her moniker “Calamity.” However, her first days amidst the high Andes are also calamitous, her altitude sickness causing her to vomit and drag an oxygen tank around. A typical Yankee, she does not speak Spanish, and after delivering a tough pep talk to the gathered campaign workers, discovers that only two or three of them speak English.
The main reason she agreed to come out of retirement is not because she believes in the candidate, but instead wants to face off again against the sleazy spin-doctor who beat her in several previous contests, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton). He is running the campaign of the liberal politician in the lead. If she is adept at dirty tricks, he is a master at filthy ones, including attempts to intimidate her and throw her off her game.
The film is based on Rachel Boynton’s 2006 documentary of the same name that told the story of James Carvel’s managing a political campaign in Bolivia in 2002. It seems that a number of political strategists play the Gun for Hire role as long as there is money to be gleaned. Unfortunately American negative campaigns using smear tactics work as well in the Andes as they do here, with Castillo slowly rising in the polls as she manages to get the stiff candidate to appear more of a man of the people. She turns the enormous crowds of supporters for his opponent to her candidate’s advantage by scare tactics, suggesting that the noisy demonstrators in the streets will disrupt the country, that a crisis looms ahead if a strong man like Castillo is not elected. Thus the manufactured “crisis” in the film’s title. Sound familiar?
This is a film in which there is just one character I came to like and root for, the young idealistic intern Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco), who at first is just a gofer for the candidate. When Castillo takes notice of him, his duties increase, and the boy begins to regard the candidate as a father figure. What happens after the election brings on its own crisis for Eddie. His anguished heart reminded me of something that the jaded Bodine had said earlier to an interviewer asking about who was her inspiration, “When I started in this business, my heroes were politicians and leaders. Then I met them.”
The film tries to rise above its cynicism by showing Bodine, when Castillo welshes on his campaign promises, undergoing a change of heart and joining up with a social justice organization. This is heartening, but not too convincing because there is no screen time given to this transition. Frank Capra would have blanched at screenwriter Peter Straughan’s script: this definitely is not a 21st century version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—or to Bolivia! America has exported many fine things—movies (well some are), rock, jazz, and the ideas and ideals of our Founding Fathers—so it is sad to see that we are also exporting our spin-doctors.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. 2015 issue of VP, available for purchase on this site.