“Our Brand Is Crisis” is a quietly devastating exposé of American politics’ corrupting influence on emerging democracies, where techniques for manipulating a nascent electorate are as easily exported as Coca-Cola. At least, that’s the case if you’re talking about Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary, in which James Carville coaches a Bolivian presidential candidate on how to bolster his chances by panicking the populace. “Our Brand Is Crisis,” the 2015 feature starring Sandra Bullock as a burned-out political consultant who comes out of self-imposed exile to help put a former Bolivian president back in office is… not that. Exactly what it is is harder to say. A toothless satire? A strained slapstick comedy? A white-savior narrative in which the fate of entire country is subservient to the reawakening of one American’s conscience? All of the above, but mostly, it’s a mess.
The new “Our Brand” is “suggested by” Boynton’s film, but there’s no trace of the documentary’s political acumen. Although it’s set in a real country, it might as well take place in what the official synopsis calls “war-torn South America” for all the specificity involved. Like “Beasts of No Nation,” which transpires in the midst of a bloody civil war in an unidentified West African country, the new “Brand,” which was written by Peter Straughan and directed by David Gordon Green, doesn’t want viewers to get bogged down in the details, so it doesn’t provide any. It’s refreshing, or at least novel, to see a mainstream American movie in which the International Monetary Fund is portrayed as the ultimate villain, but the movie’s so vague about what the IMF does that it might as well be SPECTRE.
We’re in the midst of a slew of politically minded movies that ultimately have little on their minds: “Sicario,” which casts Emily Blunt as a preposterously wide-eyed FBI agent who learns the quasi-legal horrors of the war on drugs; “Suffragette,” which fails to lend contemporary urgency to the century-old battle for women’s voting rights in the U.K.; “Trumbo,” a cartoonish riff through the history of the Hollywood blacklist; and “Truth,” which attempts to make martyrs out of the “60 Minutes” journalists, including Dan Rather, who whiffed a chance to expose George W. Bush’s Vietnam draft-dodging. What they have in common, besides being largely uninteresting, is that they approach political issues from a naive perspective, either through an apolitical character who becomes converted to the cause or by rendering the central themes in such broadly humanist strokes that they lose all meaning.
“Sicario” is the most aesthetically rich of the bunch, which also makes it the most frustrating. There’s a sharp wit at work in the way director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins use ominous drone footage to chart the film’s passage across the border from Texas to Mexico, and Blunt’s performance as a Bressonian blank is engrossing. But the ideas behind it are bankrupt, and having Blunt’s clueless agent as the only significant female role adds a tinge of sexism to the mix. It’s one thing to have her character hold onto her idealism as Josh Brolin’s CIA floater tempts her to violate the law in the name of enforcing it; quite another to have a woman who’s worked tactical operations in a border state Google Image Search “cartel violence” like a sixth grader researching a term paper, or for her to need to be reminded to unholster her weapon during a potentially hostile standoff. She’s meant, it seems, as a proxy for the American public, who turn a blind eye to the tactics employed in the wars on drugs and terror — Brolin’s drawling cowboy is a cousin to his turn as George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s “W” — but if Americans are ignorant of the extent to which the nation’s founding principles are regularly violated in the name of “keeping us safe,” it’s not because they’ve failed to do the proper internet research: It’s because they don’t want to know.
“Truth” works a similar blend of knowingness and faux naïveté. The story of how CBS producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) were snookered into airing unverifiable documents that purported to prove Bush used his political influence to secure a spot in the National Guard during the Vietnam War is a cautionary tale about the pressures of contemporary journalism and the dangers of a priori assumptions: Mapes and co. were so sure they were right about Bush that they breezed past numerous red flags and discredited what could have been a presidency-crippling investigation. But first-time director James Vanderbilt, working from Mapes’ book, frames their efforts with disingenuous banality. Journalists, we’re told again and again, “just ask questions” — and who could take issue with that? It’s a convenient dodge for a film that wants to insist its subjects were on the right track while ignoring the fact that the answers they ended up with were at best unsupportable, at worst a politically motivated fraud.
These movies, several of which are financed in part by Participant Media, are founded on the assumption that audiences aren’t interested in politics — that they recoil, in fact, from the very word, which is why you’ll hear the directors and the actors insisting in interviews that they’re “about the characters” or the “human story” rather than any particular ideology. They don’t challenge their audiences in any meaningful way, or confront them with anything more than the broadest of platitudes. They’re movies about politics, but not political movies.
Not every movie about a political struggle needs to reinvent the form, but it’s hard not to see the disjuncture in a movie like “Suffragette,” whose rock-throwing, bomb-lighting heroines might, under different circumstances, be classed as terrorists. The movie argues that after 50 years of politely asking for the vote, activists were justified in turning to property destruction, smashing shop windows and attempting to blow up a government minister’s summer house. But the movie keeps its radicals at a distance, entering the story through the lens of Carey Mulligan’s unaffiliated washerwoman, who eventually acts as an accomplice but never takes the lead. She’s a mere witness to the movie’s decisive act, literally standing on the sidelines as another woman makes headlines. These movies leave us on the sidelines, too, cheering or hissing, but never bidding us to take the field.