In Paul Mazursky’s 1988 political comedy, “Moon Over Parador,” two soldiers are studying campaign posters for dictator Alphonse Simms (Richard Dreyfuss). One of the posters reads, “Vote White Simms,” and the other “Vote Blue Simms.” The first soldier says, “I am going to vote Blue,” to which his confrere replies, “Vote for who you want.”
That’s my go-to reference for movies that try to convince us that we can make a difference. Turns out I am not alone in my cynicism.
“If voting changed anything,” ‘Calamity’ Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) proclaims, channeling famed anarchist Emma Goldman, “they would make it illegal.”
Bodine and archrival Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton) are not so much campaign strategists as they are Mad Men, branding and selling their Bolivian candidates as a solution to a problem, like Don Draper or Peggy Olson might pitch the indispensability of mouthwash or a flea collar. “Our brand,” Bodine says, “what we are selling, is crisis.” Thus, she paints their populist opponent as soft in a country starving for decisiveness.
It’s an effective strategy for the disillusioned marketer wooed from a self-imposed exile/early-retirement. From 28 points behind, she takes her candidate to the top, where it converges with her burgeoning (and predictable) crisis of conscience.
Like all film trailers, “Crisis'” promised one thing (here a laugh-out-loud comedy) but delivered another (a dramatic reflection of the sad state of democracy with, at best, a handful of gags, most of which were in the trailer). I suppose that’s a metaphor for political campaigns, as well.
But unlike typical liberal Hollywood hagiologies, this one plays it fair and balanced, chiding one side for exploiting “people looking for hope and desperate for change” and the other for being an elitist ruling class out of touch with the struggling citizenry (who, even in the poorest favelas of Bolivia, lob a snarky Adam Smith slight about the invisible hand giving them the finger). Both sides wrestle to shape the narratives and launch well-organized phony “grass roots” campaigns to do their dirty work.
Bullock manages the near-impossible in bringing the misanthropic “Calamity” Jane to life, making her plausible and vulnerable. Thornton, on the other hand, is merely a James Carville caricature and barely a foil. Both are too quick to turn to Sun Tzu for cliche wisdom (we get it, all’s fair in love, war and politics).
Morose, but a good film for moviegoers with their expectations calibrated and a strong stomach to see how the political sausage is made.