Movie Review: Our Brand is Crisis
by Matt Stoller, Tue Mar 21, 2006 at 07:19:25 AM EST
I saw a film called Our Brand is Crisis last night, and it was stunning. It's the story of American political consultants that go into Bolivia in 2002 to help elect a neoliberal President Goni, an American-educated stubborn elitist who is clearly out of touch with the urgent needs of his desperately poor country. In an earlier term as President, Goni had sold out the country's ample natural resource base, and was pushing for tighter IMF solutions that were clearly bankrupting the country. The consultants, who fancy themselves progressives, see this as neoliberal fantasy playcamp and strive to get Goni elected over what they see as 'irresponsible' populist candidates who don't in fact want Bolivian industry sold to foreigners. The consultants are successful in the election, able to split the various candidate supporters running on a populist line through a nasty negative campaign. Goni wins with an appalling low plurality of 21% of the vote, and then 14 months later he resigns amidst riots that kill 100 people.
What is remarkable about the film is the behind-the-scenes look at how these guys operate. The firm is the Greenberg Carville Shrum group, and their cynicism and arrogance is laid bare as they use modern American marketing tools to play God in a country about which they clearly know nothing. Their notion of democracy is a nasty greedy slugfest of ads and media spin, and when it doesn't work because the people in Bolivia know that Goni would be a bad leader, they turn negative. The rationalizations turn these guys and the filmmaker into moral pretzels, as they talk about how democracy is embedded into American DNA while it just doesn't seem to take route among Bolivians. This of course despite the focus groups where Bolivians are telling them that they don't like Goni because he is anti-democratic and won't listen to the people.
I was offended and embarrassed at all the soulless lip-smacking of the consultants as they showed their ads to poor Bolivians and chronicled the reactions on their slick laptops. When you juxtapose their flimsy greed and facile power greed against bullet holes in the skulls of protesters working for constitutional reform in Bolivia, it drives home a point of clear moral decline of American political culture.
Now, I'm a political guy, not a film critic, so my I'll leave most of the cinematic critique to Jane. For my money, though, I actually had to look a bit for these conclusions, because the filmmaker, Rachel Boynton, doesn't understand the story she told. Her access was amazing, but she was 'in the tank', having succumbed to the bullshit that the Greenberg Carville Shrum group pumped out as much as Goni did. She never did touch on the real source of Goni's weakness, which was a moral cowardice reflected in the poverty and violence he clearly cared so little about. To her, Goni was trying to do the right thing, and so were all the consultants, and so she tried to impute some false nobility to their enterprise. Fortunately, she fails, and the film can't help but tell a real story, a human story, of delusional power mad individuals who are at the end of the day quite banal, and quite dangerous.