'Our Brand Is Crisis'

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Unlikely as it sounds, a documentary that details with jaw-dropping candor how contemporary political campaigning works at the highest levels of government is set not in this country but in the far-off reaches of Bolivia. Yet the implications of "Our Brand Is Crisis" for how things go down in the United States — and elsewhere — are inescapable.

That's because the "full-service political consulting firm" seen hard at work in Bolivia is not only American, it's high-powered Greenberg Carville Shrum (GCS), the people, personified by James Carville, who helped put Bill Clinton into the White House and now sell their expertise to potential political leaders around the world.

The last documentary Carville was featured in was 1993's "The War Room," which took us inside the ragtag have-not beginnings of what was to be Clinton's successful presidential campaign.

With "Our Brand Is Crisis," by contrast, we not only see how it is for the haves, we get unprecedented access to the hush-hush high-level Bolivian back rooms where schemes are hatched, strategies are worked out and smear campaigns are started.

Because these Washington, D.C.-based operatives epitomize the state of the art in campaigning, the film lets us in on the way politics works in this country as well.

And because GCS finds employment all around the globe, "Our Brand Is Crisis" allows us to see exactly what it means and precisely how difficult it is to "export democracy" to parts of the world with cultures very different from our own.

This is the first film as a director for Rachel Boynton, but her work as associate producer on "Well-Founded Fear," a riveting 2000 documentary on the inner workings of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, showed a gift for getting into places where most people aren't allowed.

Boynton not only got cooperation from the D.C. firm, she also persuaded Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, familiarly known as "Goni," to let her tag along during his 2002 campaign to recapture the Bolivian presidency despite the baggage he'd accumulated when he'd held the office from 1993 to 1997.

The interesting thing about the operatives at Greenberg Carville Shrum, as personified by the articulate Jeremy Rosner, the chief strategist for the Bolivian campaign, is that they are not in this just for the money but because, as Rosner says on camera, they sincerely believe in "a particular brand of democracy, which is progressive, social democratic, market-based and modern."

Goni's beliefs squared with the firm's, so even though he had formidable negatives, including a Spanish speaking style that reflected his American birth, they agreed to work on his campaign and, as Rosner says, "turn it around."

The first step is to brand the candidate as if he were a new bar of soap. GCS decided that "the frame for us is crisis, we must own crisis, it's a message we can bet the house on." In other words, when the Bolivians thought about their country's palpable troubles, Goni should be on the top of their list to solve them.

"Our Brand Is Crisis" is particularly strong at detailing the various ways GCS goes about influencing the Bolivian electorate they want to persuade. We see focus groups recorded by hidden cameras, we see journalists manipulated, we see effective smear campaigns taking shape. And most of all we see what a coldblooded sport campaigning is, and how desperately the people who are good at it want to win.

What the Washington folks finally ran up against, however, is the hard fact that the Bolivian people didn't necessarily believe in market-driven economics as much as the consultants did. The Bolivians turned out to have minds of their own, minds that could be pushed, but only so far.

The question is, as Rosner says, eerily echoing Iraq, "Can you export your brand of democracy to such a divided country? If democracy can't yield benefits for the average person, the average person is not going to have a deep philosophical commitment to it. You have to feel life is improving as democracy takes root."

After insisting for months and months that their brand was crisis, the GCS folks found they had gotten more crisis than they bargained for.

'Our Brand Is Crisis'

MPAA rating: Unrated

A Koch Lorber Films release. Director-producer Rachel Boynton.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Exclusively at the Monica, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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