Political documentaries dont come any more shaming than Rachel Boyntons terrific Our Brand is Crisis, a barely straight-faced account of what happened in Bolivia in 2002, when a group of US consultants helped a candidate win the presidency only to see the country slide into near-total chaos.
Globalism extends to the American way of campaigning, it seems, and the hubris of the gringo strategists earnest ex-Clintonistas employed by James Carvilles Greenberg Carville Shrum group would be hilarious if human lives and a countrys political will werent at stake.
Its a galling and provocative experience to viewers of any political persuasion, and a reminder to the left of how easily idealism can run amok.
The Carville boys were hired by Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, a.k.a. Goni, a patrician Bolivian businessman who served a rough term as Bolivias president in the mid-90s. Gonis legacy was an unsuccessful program of capitalization (i.e., he welcomed foreign investment and watched foreigners get all the jobs).
By 2002, the time of filming, unemployment is through the roof and rural campesinos are agitating for political representation. Goni is old news and his poll numbers are dismal. Enter Jeremy Rosner, Greenberg Carville Shrums point man in Bolivia, an articulate manipulator of mass moods (and a fellow who bears an uncanny resemblance to Seth Meyers of Saturday Night Live reality parodies itself here better than any comic could).
Rosner and his minions hold focus groups, print bar charts, and quickly decide on Gonis campaign theme: crisis. The countrys falling apart, so who will you turn to? The candidates longtime campaign manager, Carlos Morales, has his own polls and research, but theyre arrogantly shunted aside.
Its an uphill battle, nevertheless. Over half the electorate really cant stand you guys, admits one of the consultants.
Against Goni are Evo Morales, a socialist firebrand who represents the countrys coca growers but who denies hes a drug lord or a terrorist, and Cochabamba mayor Manfred Reyes Villa, a thoughtful pragmatist with a charismatic head of hair. Villa leads in the polls, so Rosner and company decide he must be taken down.
Its a measure of the trust filmmaker Boynton built with the Americans that they happily discuss negative campaigning with the cameras rolling either that, or theyre willfully blind. Management consultant Tal Silverstein insists we have to turn [Villa] from a clean candidate to a dirty one, and articles go out fretting about his military experience and digging into his finances. Tomorrow theyll probably say Im an associate of Osama bin Laden, Villa shrugs in an interview.
Wrong. They tie him to the Moonies.
Gonis own response is that of a plump tuna surrounded by sharks. Mine not to reason why, he sighs and goes out to insult the electorate and bobble softball questions lobbed by the hostess of a morning chat show. When Carville himself arrives from the states to rally the troops, he gleefully gives Boynton the lowdown on media manipulation and chuckles that campaigns are like intercourse: You dont have that much control over when you peak. TMI, Ragin Cajun, TMI.
Goni wins by the narrowest of margins in a severely split field. He does little for several months (other than plan to ship Bolivias natural gas from a port in enemy Chile), then decides to raise taxes. Cut to riots in the streets. Over a hundred people died in the ensuing months, and Goni eventually fled to America. In late 2005, Morales won the presidency with a historic 54 percent of the vote. You could argue that the Carville consultants helped drive Bolivia into his arms, since the centrist Villa would likely have won in 2002 without their intervention.
Not that Rosners taking credit. Gently asked by Boynton what went wrong, he stares into space and stammers that there are conditions that democracy cant deal with. Its the confusion of a privileged child whose toy has blown up in his face.