“Our Brand Is Crisis”
Ah, elections. We all know the drill: the candidates spout incredible optimism about the future, if they’re in charge, of course. They’re critical of their opponents, of naturally, because they’re trying to define how they’re better. But they have to be a little careful here; too much unrelenting degradation can suddenly make the electorate “feel sorry” for the one receiving the verbal abuse, a sympathetic reaction that can swing the voters toward the other side. But it’s all about perception, and all about shaping that public opinion. And behind the scenes, we all know that there are legions of professional “handlers” and “political consultants” and well-known “spin doctors” who can turn a whole campaign around.
Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) is one such well-known, behind-the-scenes “player” whose advice and counsel can make or break a campaign. The problem is, Jane went on a losing streak. Several times, she went up against her big rival spin doctor, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton). And every time, her candidate lost. Doesn’t matter if it wasn’t her fault; she’s been labelled as “Calamity Jane”: someone you don’t want working for you, because the stink of defeat surrounds her.
Actually, Jane herself is pretty happy right now. She’s dropped completely out of sight. For five years now, she’s lived in her cabin in the Rocky Mountains, a long way from everybody. She’s become a potter., though not a particularly successful one. Mostly, she manages to avoid all the stress, and all the high pressure. She feels better, she’s more relaxed, she’s quit smoking and drinking. She’s calm and content.
And then comes the knock on the door. They need her desperately. It seems there’s a campaign in Bolivia that’s going very poorly. Their candidate, Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) is at 8% and fading. He’d been “El Presidente” before, but that was 15 years ago. Though well-educated and quite conversant in English, he’s not at all charming. He’s an impervious, imperious, self-important, arrogant little peacock. His leading rival has charm and eloquence, and he’s backed, of course, by Pat Candy. The country’s economy is in shambles, the indigenous population is in near-revolt from their continual disenfranchisement. Castillo's handlers have no idea how to improve the public’s perception of their haughty candidate. But they know they need help, and they need it fast, so they come with hat in hand to Calamity Jane.
Calamity Jane really doesn’t have much zeal for this losing proposition, but in truth, she misses the fervor and the fever of a hotly-contested election. Things have been too quiet for too long in her remote little mountain cabin, and she’s too young to just retire forever. Call it a sabbatical. Besides, she could use the money. So she agrees to dive back into the fray.
Of course when she arrives, things are even worse than she thought. Plus, she gets altitude sickness (La Paz is 12,000 feet). She doesn’t know Spanish, so that makes her communication skills limited. Plus, Castillo enjoys reminding everyone around him who’s in charge.
A potentiall-disastrous crowd incident turns into an opportunity. A masked man walks up and throws eggs on the face of our candidate, who reacts instinctively: he punches the man in the face and knocks him down. The rest of the staff is apoplectic with apology, but Calamity Jane sees an opportunity: portray our man as a natural fighter, and paint the whole country in crisis. People don’t have to like him. In fact, it’s better that he’s not perceived as a nice guy. But he is the strong leader we need right now.
It’s a brilliant strategy, but there’s a price: the helter-skelter of the campaign causes our Calamity Jane to return to her smoking, drinking, and restless, sleepless ways. Though irascible and headstrong, she's also vulnerable and likeable. And though it's always about winning and losing in politics, maybe, for the hangers-on like Jane, it's really more about defining who you are in the midst of the maelstrom.