The Candidate | The Nation


The Candidate

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GCS told him to repeat, at every rally and in every interview, that Bolivia had reached a point of no return. He would save the country from this crisis. His GCS slogan, emblazoned on every banner, poster and TV commercial, declared "¡Sí se puede!" ("Yes we can!") To insure that Goni stayed on message, GCS limited him to one daily appearance: the "photo of the day." Focus groups, convened and studied by Rosner, allowed GCS to check the response of ordinary Bolivians to each particular of the campaign, with the richly comic result that Goni's poll numbers went into immediate decline.

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Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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The candidate in the lead was Manfred Reyes Villa, mayor of Cochabamba. Our Brand Is Crisis takes note of Reyes Villa's success more or less as the GCS team did, as a strategic challenge for the Goni campaign to overcome rather than as a substantive matter to investigate--an understandable choice (since Boynton couldn't include everything) but one that left an opportunity unexplored. Boynton might have helped viewers understand why Goni was so unpopular, and why Reyes Villa's city had something to do with it, if she had only acknowledged the so-called water revolt, which had convulsed Cochabamba two years earlier.

In 1999 the Bolivian government had leased Cochabamba's water supply to a private company, founded and controlled by the Bechtel corporation. Almost at once, people were hit with rate increases as high as 200 percent. According to eyewitness reports by Jim Shultz (who won a Project Censored award for his stories), a family living on the minimum wage of $60 a month suddenly had to pay a quarter of its income to keep the tap open. By mid-April 2000, after general strikes and bloody riots, Cochabamba's citizens succeeded in driving Bechtel from town, forcing the government to cancel the water contract.

Although the Bechtel contract was not signed during Goni's presidency, jockeying for the water rights had begun while he was in office, and the spirit of the enterprise was not unfamiliar to him. Voters everywhere in Bolivia knew this; but the GCS consultants clearly did not care, and Boynton, behaving a bit too much like her subjects, does not even mention the revolt. Relying on a direct cinema approach, for both good and ill, she sticks with the events she could capture firsthand.

These include the launch of a negative TV commercial against Cochabamba's mayor. I have already mentioned Boynton's stunning success in recording the planning session. Now I should note the success of GCS's negative campaign. A few sneering questions about Reyes Villa's income, a single old photograph of him in military uniform, and the frontrunner's poll numbers dropped. In yet another irony--hilarious or not, you decide--GCS got further, unexpected help from the US ambassador, who stepped into the campaign with a denunciation of another candidate, Evo Morales. On the strength of this recommendation, Morales surged in the polls, probably drawing voters away from Reyes Villa, and Goni moved into a dead heat with the frontrunner.

Now Bolivia was ready for James Carville. Few voters would have unbent themselves from their daily burdens to rise and stare at his advent; but every viewer of Boynton's film will thrill to the glittering eyes, the wolfish grin, the surplus of patter above matter that make him a star. Carville rightfully became a leading man in 1993, with Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker's documentary The War Room, and he has now played himself (or someone just like him) in perhaps a dozen movies and TV shows, including the unfairly maligned K Street (which he helped produce). He is now more than a consultant and more than a media personality. He has become, in himself, a moving-image genre, which assimilates real-world events into the category of "a James Carville picture." He did it with Our Brand Is Crisis, too, without even giving Boynton much of his screen time.

I don't mean this as a criticism of Boynton. She has put together an absurdly funny, sometimes horrifying, frequently revelatory documentary that clearly begins from the model of The War Room (or the earlier Primary) but then ventures into important new territory. Let everyone watch Our Brand Is Crisis. (It opens in New York on March 1, at Film Forum, and then goes into national release.) When you see it, though, maybe you'll sigh, as I did, at the disastrous story arc that is now integral to the James Carville genre.

Are Carville's clients more enlightened than Karl Rove's, his business practices more ethical, his political beliefs more humane? Sure. And Goni, for all I know, might indeed have had the best program of any candidate in 2002. (There were a lot of candidates--and Goni, despite his faults, had made some real advances during his first presidency.) But as Our Brand Is Crisis makes clear, with its scenes of chaos following Goni's squeak to victory, elections ought to be about something more than steaming up people's emotions, venting the pressure and then hoping the populace will simmer down again, so the work of capital markets may go on undisturbed. "There are conditions," as Rosner said, "that democracy ultimately can't deal with." But this is "democracy" as Ben Sonnenberg has mordantly defined it: "the Christianity of capitalism."

At the end of Our Brand Is Crisis, you see Jeremy Rosner, the true believer, speak with revulsion of the rise of Evo Morales--an ascension that Rosner and GCS did their unwitting bit to assist. Morales, in Rosner's view, is an "irresponsible populist." Maybe.

But what of the irresponsible democracy peddlers?

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