Sandra Bullock in "Our Brand Is Crisis"; Bolivia's President Evo Morales (Warner Bros./Reuters/David Mercado)

The real story of "Our Brand Is Crisis" is how we screwed up Bolivia: Behind the bland Sandra Bullock movie lies another strange-but-true tale of botched American meddling

A muddled Hollywood fable of dirty tricks and spiritual redemption conceals a fascinating lesson in democracy


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Andrew O'Hehir
October 29, 2015 2:58AM (UTC)

In case the true story behind the baffling and approximately well-intentioned Sandra Bullock star vehicle “Our Brand Is Crisis” makes any difference, here it is: Way back in the innocent days of 2002 (I’m kidding about “innocent”), the high-powered political consulting firm Greenberg Carville Shrum parachuted into Bolivia to take up the cause of a struggling presidential candidate named Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, universally known as “Goni.” Rachel Boynton, a documentary director whose work focuses on ideology, politics and power (her most recent movie, “Big Men,” is about the global workings of the oil industry), came along and made an extraordinary film about that campaign, whose title was drawn from a telling phrase coined by one of the GCS consultants.

That is now the title of the Bullock movie directed by indie-film veteran David Gordon Green and written by Peter Straughan (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), which is also set during a Bolivian presidential campaign and stars Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Scoot McNairy, Ann Dowd and Zoe Kazan as Bullock’s rivals or colleagues in the Machiavellian business of reinventing candidates and reshaping public opinion. What makes this fictionalized “Our Brand Is Crisis” worth noticing – to the extent it is, which isn’t much – is that the filmmakers probably believe they are delivering roughly the same message as Boynton’s documentary did, but in fact the most important aspects of this striking story has been scrubbed away or laundered into Hollywood-style pseudo-psychological neutrality.

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This movie offers us the tale of the fall and redemption of an unscrupulous white lady -- who we know cannot really be unscrupulous since she’s Sandra Bullock. Although I hasten to add that even by the standards of Bullock’s implacable, steel-jawed underacting this is a dull performance. Around the edges of this story about Bullock’s character, an especially ruthless consultant known as Calamity Jane, there are a few intriguing hints of other stories about the international financial system, the power of fear in politics and the American understanding of what democracy means when applied to other people in other countries. “Our Brand Is Crisis” is being released by Warner Bros., but was largely funded by Participant Media, which produces what it calls “socially relevant films and documentaries.” In other words, in this case the right-wingers are correct: “Liberal Hollywood” is in full effect.

Yet you really have to read between the lines and dig into the subtext of Straughan’s screenplay to perceive the issues that drove Boynton’s film. What the hell was James Carville and Stan Greenberg’s consulting firm – with its close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party leadership class – doing in one of South America’s smallest and poorest nations? Who was really paying for their work with Goni, an unpopular former president who had spent much of his life in the United States and spoke Spanish so poorly that Bolivian opponents derided him as “El Gringo”?

I get it -- Green and Straughan and Participant were trying to make a Sandra Bullock movie that Warner Bros. can put onto thousands of theater screens. So those questions remain in the dim and dusty background, behind the quasi-hilarious dirty tricks, the long nights of booze, the almost-condescending interactions with indigenous Bolivians and the rivalrous relationship – tinged with both tragedy and Eros – between Jane and Thornton’s Mephistophelean (and distinctly Carville-like) Pat Candy. Yes, this is a movie where a diabolical character is given the surname Candy, and what can you really say? All this makes for mid-grade entertainment value, at best. And in the real Bolivian election of ’02, there was no rivalry between warring American spin doctors working for different candidates, because Goni was the only candidate who got that kind of help, in clear preference to his populist opponents on both the right and left.

For people who want the vastly more interesting real history of America’s misbegotten meddling in Bolivia – just one chapter, of course, in a much larger global story – Boynton’s film is out there, and so is what happened later. Goni was in effect the candidate of the “Washington consensus,” the guy who would bring a small, fractious and deeply divided country into the established international economic order. As president in the mid-‘90s, he had pursued a controversial two-level strategy, extending constitutional rights and policy reforms aimed at Bolivia’s large indigenous population while also embarking on a widespread campaign of privatization that sold off state-owned industries and natural resources to foreign capital. As it happens – and I’m sure all this is coincidental – Bolivia contains immense natural gas reserves, the second-largest in South America after Venezuela, whose national resources had been rendered largely off limits to outside investors by the rise of socialist president Hugo Chávez.

Carville’s troops were dispatched to La Paz in ’02 to consolidate the great victory of “liberalism” and “democracy” – as they and their sponsors and benefactors understand those things – and to resist the rising tide of Latin American leftism represented in Bolivia by the indigenous political leader Evo Morales, Goni’s leading opponent. Exactly who decided that a widely disliked candidate in such a small country merited such attention, alongside such star GCS clients as Tony Blair, the Israeli Labor Party and the Canadian Liberal Party? That remains a question shrouded in mystery, but we could probably come up with some decent guesses. Who paid for it? Well, that would be you and me – both before and after.

Carville and Greenberg won that election for Goni, after shifting the entire theme of his campaign to the “crisis” mantra, but maybe they should have vetted their candidate a little better. Goni’s second term as president barely lasted a year, after his plans to allow an international consortium to build a pipeline and ship Bolivian natural gas to North America at dirt-cheap prices sparked a massive popular uprising. Facing a general strike and a series of confrontations between soldiers and protesters that left at least 67 civilians dead, Goni imposed martial law in October 2003, and the U.S. State Department issued a statement offering its full support. Have they learned nothing? That was almost certainly the final straw. Goni fled the country five days later, and now lives in exile in the U.S., which has refused to extradite him to Bolivia to face trial for extrajudicial killings and other crimes against humanity.

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Since 2006, Bolivia has been governed by Evo Morales, the indigenous leader whose protest movement led to Goni’s downfall. As one of his first moves as president, Morales unilaterally reversed the terms of Bolivia’s natural gas contracts with foreign corporations: Instead of the investors getting 82 percent of the profits and the Bolivian state getting 18 percent, it was suddenly the other way around. The corporations whined and complained, but ultimately decided that 18 percent was a lot better than nothing. Morales’ government has dramatically reduced poverty and inequality, and presided over one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, right through the crash of 2008. Maybe Carville and the Clintonocracy were empowering democracy after all, even if it wasn’t quite the variety they intended.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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