When a political consultant plans to smear someone “in a way that cannot be connected to us,” he probably should not explain this scheme to his client while a documentarian stands nearby with a video camera. The dumb violation of this rule, by someone who is paid to be smart, turns out to be among the smaller ironies in Rachel Boynton’s Our Brand Is Crisis, a feature-length account of the work done by the US firm of Greenberg Carville Shrum during the 2002 election in Bolivia.
The biggest irony: After maneuvering its candidate into the presidency, by a margin so slight it could have been attributed to humidity, the GCS team saw him chased from the country only a few months later, amid clouds of tear gas and the cries of the wounded. “What went wrong?” asks Boynton, off camera, to GCS pollster Jeremy Rosner.
“There are conditions,” he replies, “that democracy ultimately can’t deal with.”
Rosner is a likable man–soft-spoken, smiling, blatantly thoughtful, like a Reform rabbi who talks football at dinner parties–and so you hesitate to blame him personally for this world-historical shrug. The problem explored in Our Brand Is Crisis–vividly, though far from completely–does not lie in individuals but in the accepted definition of “democracy,” whether peddled in Bolivia by GCS, in Iraq by Paul Bremer and the Lincoln Group or in (you supply the name) by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
But enough of the general problem. Let’s follow Rachel Boynton’s example and get down to cases.
In 2002 the wealthy businessman Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (known as Goni) hired GCS to advise him on his run for the presidency. At the time, he was dead in the polls. Most voters thought his name was synonymous with “unemployment,” since the policies he had pursued during an earlier term as president, from 1993 to 1997, had invited foreign corporations to buy large chunks of previously state-owned companies and then permitted them to cut their workforce. Goni claimed that as a result of his “capitalization” program, 500,000 people now held new jobs; but few Bolivians, apparently, had seen one of these recent hires in the mirror. To a very large segment of the public, Goni was a failure: remote, arrogant, representative of the past (he was in his 70s) and suspiciously North American. Having grown up in the United States, he spoke Spanish with a broad Chicago accent.
But to the consultants from GCS, these were faults of image, not substance. They liked Goni’s version of free trade and privatization. (“This guy had the best formula for getting his country out of poverty,” Rosner insists.) They probably liked his Chicago English, too, and his Bill Clinton hair. Goni is the sort of man with whom North American elites can feel comfortable. GCS just needed to figure out how to sell him to an electorate that is overwhelmingly poor and Indian. Boynton shows how it was done, through a process the GCS operatives surprisingly allowed her to document, perhaps through an arrogance of their own, or perhaps through a conviction that their beliefs are self-evidently correct. As Rosner explained to Boynton, the GCS brand is “progressive politics for a profit.”
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For Goni, though, the brand was crisis.
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.
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?
As much a passion play as a historical drama, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days focuses on the holy week of Febru-ary 17-22, 1943, when the young heroine of the title distributed anti-Nazi leaflets in Munich and was arrested, interrogated, tried and put to death. Michael Verhoeven’s 1982 feature The White Rose, starring Lena Stolze, took a wide-angle view of this story, narrating the founding, growth and activities of Scholl’s resistance group and ending with her arrest. Percy Adlon’s Five Last Days, released the same year and also starring Stolze, approached the story more obliquely, looking at Scholl through the eyes of her cellmate Else Gebel. The new Sophie Scholl, written by Fred Breinersdorfer and directed by Marc Rothemund, stands apart from these earlier films by being strongly text based–its sacred writ is the transcript of Scholl’s long, multi-part interrogation by the Gestapo, a document first made accessible in 1990–but also in its explicit religious preoccupations. In interviews, Rothemund has described himself as an atheist; but in his direction, he has made Scholl a lamb of God, sacrificing herself to clear other Germans of the imputation of collective sin.
This redemptive theme vies uneasily with the film’s documentary impulse. On the one hand, Sophie Scholl was shot on historic locations or faithful re-creations, and it makes extensive use (perhaps even too extensive) of its archival sources. On the other hand, a pianist is somehow always positioned just off-camera to provide some sensitive noodling, and the sun shines on cue whenever Sophie lifts her face.
The job of resolving this internal conflict falls to the lead actress, Julia Jentsch. Just as Scholl had somehow to keep her wits about her during her ordeal–spinning tales to the Gestapo, shielding her friends, turning her show trial into an occasion for moral testimony–so must Jentsch keep up a subtle, restrained performance while the movie Nazis around her are screaming themselves red in the face. She succeeds beyond all expectation.
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days has just opened in New York, at Film Forum, and will be playing around the country as an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.