What Hollywood Can Learn About Documentary Adaptation From ‘Our Brand Is Crisis’

The opening credits of David Gordon Green’s Our Brand Is Crisis include the following attribution: “Suggested by the documentary by Rachel Boynton.” At first glance, it sounds a little shady, a hem-haw dodge of the “certain original characters created by” school; we have, after all, been told that this is a dramatization of that 2005 documentary, and thus expect a straight-up adaptation along the lines of The Walk, Rescue Dawn, or Devil’s Knot. Turns out, the credit is correct: the new Crisis, while “suggested” by the old one, is very much its own (fictional) story, it’s own thing with its own style. And it’s snappy, smart, and entertaining enough to suggest a smarter route for narrative filmmakers attempting the same translation.

Boyton’s acclaimed 2005 film documented the efforts of DC consulting firm Greenberg Carville Shrum to bring American political campaign tactics to the 2002 Bolivian presidential election. Its primary subject was chief strategist Jeremy Rosner, who headed up the GCS team’s work on behalf of “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada, a former President attempting to reclaim the office (and overcome the fumbles of his previous administration); via Boyton’s omnipresent camera, we witness focus groups, policy discussions, and strategy sessions, positioning the film as something akin to The War Room, another fly-on-the-wall campaign documentary with James Carville providing color commentary.

But if the ’05 Crisis was The War Room, then the ’15 Crisis is Primary Colors — with Billy Bob Thornton again along for the ride. In fact, this viewer presumed Thornton was resuming the role of Carville avatar, only to discover that such 1:1 configurations are nowhere to be found in Green’s film. The script (by Frank and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy screenwriter Peter Straughan) keeps the setting, the general situation, some errant themes, and a few pieces of transplanted dialogue and repurposed events. But for the most part, it’s a work of fiction, manufacturing out of whole cloth not only Thornton’s character, but that of protagonist “Calamity” Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock), a slightly unstable political consultant brought out of a pottery-heavy, clean-living semi-retirement in the middle of nowhere by strategists Nell (Ann Dowd) and Ben (Anthony Mackie) to sprinkle her magic fairy dust on the faltering campaign.

Sandra Bullock in "Our Brand Is Crisis"

At first, it looks like a bad hire. Jane announces her arrival in Bolivia by falling down the plane stairs (the altitude is killer), throwing up in a trash can (ditto), and telling Nell, after her first meeting with the candidate, “He’s not a winner.” Things go from bad to worse when she bumps into her longtime rival Pat Candy (Thornton), who’s running the opposition campaign and immediately starts burrowing into her head; several days pass with Jane in a daze, not sure how the hell to make a go of this thing, until she figures out how to turn a faux pas into an opportunity, and in doing so, transform the whole enchilada.

That moment, when the switch flips and the pilot light comes on, is when the movie comes alive — as does Bullock’s performance, which is a monster. It sort of goes without saying, by this point, that (like Julia Roberts) her acting didn’t get all that interesting until she was freed from the burden of being America’s Sweetheart™. But nothing Bullock’s done quite prepares you for the sheer force of her work here, as she takes meetings, barks orders, questions everyone, spouts aphorisms (“You don’t have the man to fit the narrative, you change the narrative to fit the man”), and generally owns the room — and the picture. Thornton, reveling in the freedom to be totally unlikable, sharpens up when he goes toe to toe with her, laying on the charm and sleaze in equal proportion, poking and prodding at her (and not flinching when she pokes and prods back), pushing the self-loathing attraction at the heart of many such rivalries.

Their byplay is electric, the intellectual one-upmanship and flagrant dirty tricks providing much of the comic fuel that makes the movie go, but (rich ensemble cast notwithstanding) this is Bullock’s show. Her virtuoso verbosity is stunning, but it’s an equally impressive physical performance; watch the way she tears up that Styrofoam cup when trying to be open with Mackie, or how she holds that look on her face when she pulls up the mask the morning after the election, or the little drama that transpires every time she looks at her cell phone and sees that Candy’s on the other end. She knows he’s got her number, literally and figuratively, and when he tells her, “If you fight with monsters too long, you become a monster,” it underscores the resentment that makes him such a festering wound: she knows she can no longer pretend they’re any different.

Sandra Bullock in "Our Brand Is Crisis"

That’s what’s happening at the center of Our Brand Is Crisis — not the logistics or specifics of the documentary’s events (though I won’t be surprised when it gets “fact-checked” by a certain site whose name rhymes with Schmlate), but the questions of cynicism, morality, and character that it offers up. Yet the connection is loose enough that you half-wonder why, since they changed everything else, they bothered keeping the title at all; it only causes confusion and comparison. (Maybe they just didn’t want to lose what is, it must be said, a pretty great title.)

The film met with mixed (at best) reviews when it premiered at Toronto last month, and I can’t quite understand why; sure, David Gordon Green’s direction is a little colorless, and he occasionally simplifies more than necessary (opening with Ten Years After’s “I’d Love to Change the World” is, admittedly, a touch on the nose). Maybe they’re just comparing it unfavorably with the documentary, and what kind of critic would adopt such a tactic?

Yet it’s worth remembering that the bulk of the audience interested in a studio-produced Sandra Bullock vehicle probably hasn’t even heard of that documentary, much less harbors any particular attachment to it. What Our Brand Is Crisis ultimately manages to do (and do well) is use real events as a jumping-off point for the kind of emotional- and character-driven storytelling that narrative features do best anyway. And frankly, that’s an approach that more of these documentary adaptations — and they keep popping up — would be wise to appropriate.

Our Brand Is Crisis is out Friday.