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‘Our Brand is Crisis’ doesn’t have suspense

Documentary about a Bolivian election should be thrilling, but it's not
/ Source: The Associated Press

Focus groups, carefully choreographed rallies and pep talks about staying “on message” — “Our Brand Is Crisis” could be about any American political campaign, and it owes a great debt to “The War Room,” the 1993 documentary about Bill Clinton’s run to the White House.

Director Rachel Boynton’s debut documentary also features Clinton spinmeister James Carville, but it shows how the strategies he’s honed apply in Bolivia, where his consulting group helped get Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada elected president in 2002.

“Goni,” as he’s known, had served as president from 1993 to ’97, introducing economic privatization which many Bolivians viewed as a selling-off of the country. At age 72 in this latest campaign, he also had none of Clinton’s charisma, and worse than that: He’d been educated in the United States and speaks Spanish with an American accent.

No matter. Carville and the members of his GCS consulting group arrive with a plan that’s simple, repetitive and focused. Why shouldn’t staying “on message” translate into any language?

That these principles apply outside the U.S. is no shock; the strategists also have worked on elections in Britain, Ireland, Brazil, India and many other countries. What can be surprising is the flippancy of the people behind the plan.

Pollsters Jeremy Rosner and Stan Greenberg talk like true believers, wide-eyed with idealism and solemnity about the process and about the candidate. Yet at times they seem almost brazenly shortsighted, as if they have no clue as to the potential long-term impact of putting their man into office.

With their high-fives and broad smiles, they’re more concerned with the here and now, with eliciting from their focus group members the words they long to hear: that Goni seems caring, that he’s learned from the mistakes of his first tenure in office, that his ads are effective, that the other candidates seem a little shady.

(One of them, Manfred Reyes Villa, had served in the military, which makes him untrustworthy in the eyes of some voters; another opponent, Evo Morales, represents Bolivia’s coca leaf farmers, which makes him one of the country’s most popular, powerful leaders.)

But we know from the film’s start, which takes place a year after the election, that the ultimate result of getting Goni elected was chaos, violence and bloodshed in the streets of La Paz.

This should have created a natural suspense leading up to the protests, which are sparked by a dearth of jobs, a proposal to raise taxes and general hatred of Goni as a leader and a man.

Instead, much of “Our Brand Is Crisis” — a line GCS advertising consultant Tad Devine comes up with to encapsulate Goni’s platform — is unbearably dry. It’s one conference call after another, one focus group session after another. It’s meeting after meeting in a series of nondescript, interchangeable hotel rooms.

And Carville himself, a force of nature who can liven up anything, only breezes in and out for a few brief moments at a time. A little bit of the “Ragin’ Cajun” goes a long way, so it speaks volumes that “Our Brand Is Crisis” makes you long to see more of him.