The Making of the President, 2002
A doubly rewarding change it was, to catch Our Brand Is Crisis as movies are meant to be seen, at a public showing. Joint sponsor with the Film Society of Lincoln Center of the thirty-fourth New Directors/New Films, the Museum of Modern Art has drawn long lines since recently reopening after renovations, and its Film and Media Department’s comfortably simple three-hundred-plus-seat Roy and Niuta Titus Theater was, if not full, encouragingly crowded. As additional surprise, young New York-based filmmaker Rachel Boynton was introduced before her film -- “incredibly excited, and honored” -- and spent forty-minutes afterwards responding to an appreciative audience’s questions and comments.
Of the “inspiration” for this first feature, Boynton confided that she had been “looking around for something to let me explore America’s relation to the rest of the world, teach us to think about it,” and, from other films about Chile, once considered focusing on political consultants’ involvement in the Pinochet mess. Hampered by a lack of funds that, for example, prevented her private-jetting to many otherwise inaccessible locations in the Bolivia she wound up with, she nevertheless managed forty-seven three-hour tapes, twenty forty-five minute ones and “I don’t know how much archival,” to be cut and arranged into the final eighty-five minutes.
An admitted Democrat, she professed a desire impartially to project a “not ‘yes’ or ‘no’” taking of sides. But, although American partisan politics does not directly enter the film, it would be disingenuous not to emerge with a point of view--if not personally on Boynton’s part, certainly at least in what the result reveals. Too, what seems to have been aggressive knocking-on-doors and networking did gain “intimate access” to politicians and consultant-marketers but, remember, not total carte blanche, for it came at the cost of promising “not to follow them where they didn’t want to be followed.” Depending on a viewer’s political leanings, it should prove impossible not to come to judgements about the candidates, especially U.S.-raised Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada, and his American consultant company (involved in “more than fifty [foreign] countries”) of Greenberg, Carville and Shrum.
With some two-hundred coups d’état since 1825 independence, Bolivia is the continent’s most unstable entity, as unintentionally symbolized by its actually having two capitals, judiciary-legal Sucre as against political-commercial La Paz. Its coastline lost to Chile in 1884 following the War of the Pacific and other chunks annexed last century by Brazil and Paraguay, the fabulous Potosí silver mines emptied by Spaniards, and its tin and wolframite industries crippled, the bankrupt nation remains mineral-rich but one of the hemisphere’s poorest, torn by the inefficiency and factionalism that brought Che Guevara to its mountains. The marginalized majority indigenous population suffers from chronic unemployment, lack of education and health facilities, exploitation and drug wars.
His Spanish noticeably American-English accented, in 2002 wealthy mining entrepreneur Sánchez de Lozada is seeking to regain the presidency he held from 1993 to ’97, when his pro-U.S., globalization-capitalization programs had not truly created promised jobs for citizens. Trailing in opinion surveys, “Goni” does what he did the first time around, coughing up two-and-a-half-million dollars from his own pockets (“to my knowledge”) to hire a pollster-consultant firm to do what the U.S. does best -- sell his candidacy like breakfast cereal.
The film uses stock footage of violent rioting and theoretically peaceful protest marches, along with clips of its Caucasian subject’s two chief rivals among ten--white, moustached front-runner Manfred Reyes Villa, and informally dressed indigene miner leader Evo Morales. Mostly, it centers on the “tanking,” brainstorming, and cold amoral analyzing of the consultants and in this last is particularly lucky.
Confined to concrete issues of jobs, schools, constitutional reform and foreign influence over the year leading to elections, with written titles indicating X months or days before the vote, the film is concentrated and coherent. But in addition it benefits enormously in that, among so many interchangeable men of business, it hits on James Carville -- “really necessary, a dynamic figure [that] turned out so well” -- and company pollster Jeremy Rosner, opposites yet bedfellows who glue things together.
Head shaved, accent country-boy Southern, bony Carville seems buffoonish for a minute, then cynically mercenary and probably dangerous. With increased appearances, however, he grows on you -- his homey metaphors (“I can’t say this on the air”) are, unfortunately, pretty much on the mark and often very funny -- and, like his convinced realpolitik or not, the audience acquired an expectant fondness for his initially off-putting personality.
An outward contrast is handsome, soft-spoken, educatedly articulate Rosner, who icily analyzes, advises, assesses through two-way mirrors indigenous (but largely urban) focus groups discussing their campaign reactions. One cannot but be struck with the lack of ethical considerations, the businesslike approach and methods such as an anonymous “dirty war” of Moonie-cult and military-connection implications against rich Reyes Villa, as all of these company men orchestrate their man’s campaign and sabotage others’. Rosner rings a bit different, more refined, yet he goes along and only later, back home post-election and -subsequent events, gives voice to what might have been done differently -- “sensitively” is the word one vainly hopes for -- and to qualms about “export[ing] your brand of democracy . . . if it can’t yield benefits to the average person.”
The public is supposedly hardened to any new form of chicanery in politics, yet there is truly something shocking here. It is not simply the way in which detergents, sneakers, movies and office-seekers are packaged for sale, but that -- and we have all seen Costa-Gavras and Pontecorvo -- even extra-governmentally and leaving aside our Ambassador to Bolivia’s unpardonable remarks, the United States maintains interfering fingers in so many overseas pies. The director/co-editor/-camerawoman and occasional interviewer, too, may withhold personal opinion in public, but there is no way her damaging film will leave viewers sitting on the fence.
In the June 30, 2002, showdown, Sánchez de Lozada “won,” but his 22.5 percent barely outstripped his two main rivals’ votes. The President was on shaky footing from the start, what with his Popular Participation Plan nowhere near fast-acting enough, an income tax and the exportation of natural gas through a Chilean pipeline creating outrage, Evo Morales calling on campesinos, miners and students to strike and block roads, and bloody confrontations with army and carabineros that left more than a hundred protesters dead. Fourteen months into this second, five-year term, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada resigned in favor of Vice-President Carlos Mesa and went to live in Washington, D.C., again.
Though polls reflect “Goni’s” low scores on “Honest and Trustworthy,” he is not corrupt but, rather, out of his element. Rosner recognizes that “we’ve got a lot to do on ‘Goni’s’ image”: more at ease with mannered society, the aspirant has little feel for the pulse of the downtrodden, speaks frankly but tactlessly, and pushes for ill-timed programs he sincerely believes are the panacea. Not a bad man, just sadder and only marginally wiser, seated afterwards on a bench in our nation’s capital, he still misunderstands and feels himself wronged, as well as right rather than president.
But what of the others, the North American salesmen who, too, have done what they are paid for, and will continue to do so. Boynton chose not, she says, to do an easy film about abhorrent people and “slam or make them look like jerks.” Both company and candidate had already viewed this film and approved. “They really believe in what they do.”
(Not rated by MPAA.)