On paper, Our Brand Is Crisis, an extraordinary documentary that tracks an American consulting firm’s efforts to re-elect a president in Bolivia, sounds dry as a bone. Make no mistake, though: Rachel Boynton’s painfully timely film is actually a full-court tragedy — the sorry tale of a ?battle won and a war lost; of a country decimated by 500 years of colonialism and poverty; of globalization and America’s losing battle to export market democracy to the developing world. Most of all, it’s about the dangerous brew of good intentions and arrogance that led Greenberg Carville Shrum, a Washington-based progressive consulting group, to engineer the re-election campaign of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (known as Goni), a U.S.-raised former president of Bolivia, as he sought a second term, having earlier stepped down.
Yes, that Carville. In more ways than one, Our Brand Is Crisis can be seen as a sequel to Chris ?Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s 1993 film The War Room, which gained unprecedented access into James Carville and company’s drive to get Bill Clinton elected U.S. president. Boynton, too, gets terrific access, and she shows us the strenuous coaxing of the urbane but aloof Goni into a more people-friendly persona, the closely monitored focus groups, the points up and down in the polls, the covert negative campaign against the other candidates, the running around the country to persuade disillusioned and heavily unemployed campesinos to get onboard for foreign investment in Bolivia and the export of the country’s plentiful natural gas. In the way of all herculean group efforts toward a seemingly unattainable goal, the process is exciting to watch, even if the hyperrationalism and missionary zeal of star GCS strategist Jeremy Rosner, who has Stepford-wife eyes and a breathy voice you can’t quite trust, is a little creepy. “We listen very hard, with no preconceptions,” says Rosner earnestly. They did listen, after a fashion but not nearly hard enough, to ordinary Bolivians’ profound mistrust of Goni and the American-style democracy he represented.
Boynton is hardly neutral. In postmortem interviews sprinkled throughout the film, she asks Rosner awkward questions about the wisdom of promoting a leader who didn’t have majority support. But for a novice, Boynton has down the skillful documentarian’s ability to withhold judgment and juggle points of view. She’s no more starry-eyed about Goni’s populist rivals — one of whom is a high-rolling thug with murky ties to the military, the other a rabble-rousing coca grower — than she is about Goni himself, who comes across as a likable, sincere and smart, if politically naive, reformer. In the end, it was not idealism so much as the burning desire to win that blinded him and his advisers to what was to follow. It gives nothing away to say that against all odds — and undoubtedly because of the help he got from GCS — Goni won the election. And then the trouble really started.
None of us likes to contemplate the unintended consequences of our actions, especially when they involve as much effort and hard work as the running of a presidential campaign. But Americans, raised on world supremacy, optimism and the infinite perfectibility of human affairs, are unusually myopic about the uncertain relationship between intention and outcome. In the end, it’s wild man Carville who emerges as the seasoned pragmatist with a firm grasp of these limits, and the wisdom to see that while saving the world for democracy may be a noble impulse, it can’t be done without humility and respect for the ways of others. Iraq, anyone?
OUR BRAND IS CRISIS | Written, directed and produced by RACHEL BOYNTON | Released by Koch Lorber Films | At Monica 4-Plex