A battle-hardened American political consultant is sent to help re-elect a controversial president in Bolivia, where she must compete with a long-term rival working for another candidate.
The film starts with Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) being interviewed. The interviewer says she’s been known by many names, most notably “Calamity Jane”. She will work on the campaign of anybody, provided the money is right. It is revealed that she retired after violating election laws. The rest of the movie is her telling the story of what happened after her resignation.
Ben (Anthony Mackie) and Nell (Ann Down) are driving in the snowy mountains (“between the mountains”, as Jane later corrects them) discussing their plan to sway Jane to work for the campaign of Pedro Castillo, a Senator in Bolivia who is running for President. He is currently 28 points behind. Arriving at Jane’s house, she explains she has quit smoking and drinking and has focused on pottery. There are dozens of pottery jars and bowls covering the walls. Ben admires a shiny dark bowl but Nell takes it from him.
Nell explains that Castillo’s opponent, Rivera, has hired her old arch nemesis, Pat Candy (played by Billy Bob Thornton).
A screenshot shows Castillo at 8% with Rivera leading with 36%. Several candidates separate the two.
Jane has accepted the offer and their plane lands in La Paz, Bolivia, which has an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. She is unable to breath and is using an oxygen mask on the car ride to campaign headquarters. She meets the campaign team but stays in the background at the first meeting, clearly feeling ill. The campaign advisors are telling Castillo he needs to meet with the people and be seen as one of the people. Jane is so nauseous from her travel and the elevation she leaves and is heard throwing up.
Ben meets her in the hallway and she immediately says he’s not a winner, and he cannot win.
Later at her hotel room, she is still nauseous from the elevation.
Castillo and the campaign team are on the outdoor set of a commercial for the Senator. An young actress expresses concern with her part in the ad, which requires her to be caught by Castillo. She doesn’t believe he’ll catch her and he expresses disbelief. Jane is on the set but is only seen in the background on a lounge chair, still looking unwell. A senior advisor expresses dismay that she has been hired but all she’s doing is “sunning herself”.
During a focus group for the ad in which he catches and holds up several people, it’s clear the ad does not resonate with anybody. One woman says he has a weird smile. Castillo is frustrated and wants to hear what Jane has planned for the campaign. Jane expresses to Ben that she still gets nauseous whenever she sees Castillo.
At a large debate with all the candidates, Jane is found behind the stage backdrop during the debate. She is approached by Candy, who tells her he’s surprised she’s working on an unwinnable campaign. She tells him she’s going home “tomorrow.” He suggests “maybe later” they can go out.
At an evening event, Castillo is shaking hands with people behind a barrier. A man in a mask jumps the barrier and smashes an egg on Castillo’s forehead. Castillo immediately punches the man. A young man working on the campaign, Eduardo (Reynaldo Pacheco) comes to the rescue of Castillo and ushers him away. Candy can be seen watching the action in the background.
Jane insists to the campaign team that this was set up by Candy. The campaign believes Castillo should apologize as soon as possible but Jane disagrees. She doesn’t think the man should change to fit the narrative but instead the narrative should change to fit the man. She insists Castillo express regret, but not to apologize. Finally, she meets with Castillo for their first conversation. She describes the “Daisy” advertisement, which ran exactly once, that turned the election for Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater. She tells Castillo and the campaign that this is no longer an election, it is a crisis. From that day on, she says, “our brand is crisis.”
While Castillo is meeting with the press, Jane meets Eduardo. His name is too long with her so she just calls him Eddie. She gives him a bottle of Paul Newman Steak Sauce.
Another screenshot shows Castillo has 10% to Rivera’s 39% with 80 days until election day.
Jane wakes up in her hotel room. She needs a cigarette, so she walks out the door into a large open foyer. On a table she finds a Rivera doll. She looks across the large foyer to see Candy sitting outside his room. Later she’ll claim he got the room intentionally to get under her skin.
Before a campaign stop, Jane tells Eddie to help Castillo roll up his sleeves. After he does this, Castillo gives Eddie his cufflinks to hold, and it is clear Eddie idolizes him. Later, two senior advisors argue the “crisis” brand may have worked with the current crowd, but it won’t with the “working class”.
At another commercial set inside a warehouse, several llamas are there, and Castillo is set to compare the future of Bolivia with llamas, who work hard. Outside, a large groan is heard. One of the llamas is hit by a truck. Jane says the llama can’t stand the commercial so badly, he killed himself.
At another meeting with advisors, it’s revealed the “crisis” message is working, but not so well that it will win the election. Jane says it’s time to go negative. She introduces LeBlanc (Zoe Kazan), a young investigator who is hired to dig up dirt on Rivera. Jane suggests that Castillo reveal everything that could be used against him, but he refuses. When Jane leaves the meeting with LeBlanc, she instead instructs her to dig up dirt on Castillo, their own candidate. Walking into the room with the campaign team, she gives a fiery and inspirational speech about how important it is to go negative, and that anybody with a problem with that will be given a set of balls. There is only one wrong thing to do, she says: Losing. She then asks who knows English and only a handful of people raise their hands, so LeBlanc must translate.
LeBlanc discovers Rivera has purchased 27 vehicles with taxpayer money at the cost of about 35-40 vehicles. He is a crook. Jane gets a call from Pat who tells her to turn on the TV. Rivera is on, holding two babies during a campaign stop, confessing how he’s “doubly lucky”, and promises to run a positive campaign. Jane insist they go negative in spite of this, but Castillo says no.
LeBlanc finds even more dirt on Rivera, but Jane tells her to focus everything on finding dirt on Castillo.
Fliers are discovered, authored by the “La Paz Grassroots” that say Castillo had a three year affair. Jane says that Pat Candy is behind the fliers. Castillo says it’s in the past, and that his wife knows about it, but Jane claims the perception will be that he’s an adulterer. As a result of this, Castillo agrees to start running a negative campaign.
Negative ads are now running for Castillo’s campaign. Candy calls Jane and invites her to go out again. She doesn’t respond. Instead, both end up outside of their hotel rooms so they can see each other. Candy reveals it was him (via a friend of a friend) who anonymously suggested to the Castillo campaign to hire Jane.
In the city, Eddie is hanging Castillo posters. An SUV carrying the Castillo advisors sees him and stop to give him a ride home, insisted upon by Jane. When they get home, his brothers ridicule Eddie for bringing “Yankees” and trusting them, and for that matter, trusting Castillo. The boys (all adult age) are living alone because their parents have both died. Jane invites them out to dinner with the campaign team. They are then in a restaurant, the entire campaign team drinking heavily.
Back at the hotel room, Jane is with Eddie and his brothers, ordering room service and still drunk. They make a sling shot out of clothes and shoot something that splatters against Candy’s window across the foyer. They then shoot the head of the Rivera doll Candy had left, and it breaks his window. He calls the police and Jane is seen slapping an officer. She spends the night in jail.
Jane meets with Castillo who says she’s a liability. She reveals she has had mental issues before and suffered from depression. She offers to reluctantly resign, but Castillo keeps her on. Meanwhile, the senior advisors (Ben, Nell and others) talk about Jane and Candy, how they had sex previously, and how she spread a rumor during a campaign that Candy’s candidate’s daughter was on drugs. (The daughter killed herself as a result.)
At a Rivera campaign stop, Jane is seen talking to Candy. Candy tells her he knows it was Jane who planted the fliers of Castillo’s infidelity in order to force Castillo to run a negative campaign. It’s also revealed that Candy is the one who ran over the llama during the commercial shoot. While Rivera is still speaking aboard a train, Jane poses as a worker for the Rivera campaign and tells the conductor the speech is over. The train begins to leave and Candy is furious.
A montage shows the “crisis” message is working and support for Castillo is growing.
On a campaign bus heading toward a remote Bolivia location on a small dirt road, they discover Rivera’s bus is directly ahead of them. Jane wants to overtake it. A bus race ensues around dangerous bends and cliffs. Jane yells out the window to Candy that Rivera has dropped 6 points. She then offers money to the driver to overtake the Rivera bus. When it does, Jane moons the Rivera bus. Somebody on the Castillo bus says “Jane has a great ass!” (And she does. She really truly does.)
More fliers are discovered that claim (with pictures) Castillo is a member of a crazy white-robe wearing cult. Like before, it came from “La Paz Grassroots”, but this time it really did come from Candy. To handle this scandal, Castillo is interviewed on TV and explains it was a visit to his son, who IS a member of the cult, and he had to wear the robe. He denies being a member of the cult. The interviewer talks about his son. Castillo had been coached by Jane that if he senses any emotion or tears, to look directly into the camera. He does exactly that, to Jane’s delight, when explaining he’s not close to his son, but he wishes he was, with tears in his eyes.
A graphic shows with 24 days left until the election, Castillo has 19% and Rivera has 30%.
Jane next starts a rumor that Rivera is a Nazi, based on no real facts, but a fuzzy picture showing him with Nazi propaganda. She explains it’s not relevant whether it’s true. She just needs to hear him deny it.
On a bus trip to a mountainous countryside, protesters start throwing rocks at the bus. The villagers are angrily blocking the bus, and Castillo, against the wishes of Jane, gets off to talk with them. They plead with him that any negotiations with the IMF (International Monetary Fund) be preceded by a referendum so the people can decide. Castillo promises the people that will happen if he’s elected.
Back on the bus, Castillo explain to Eddie that an effective leader is a father to the people, and that sometimes a father must be strict. He says the people in the village don’t understand that yet.
In a restaurant, Jane sits alone until Candy sits next to her. He tells a story about a campaign run by Adlai Stevenson in which Stevenson is told everything thinking person would vote for him, to which Stevenson replies “that is not enough. I need a majority”. Candy goes on to tell Jane, “If you fight with monsters too long, you become a monster.” Jane later says that she’ll kill herself if she loses to Candy again (though this appears to be hyperbole) She has lost every election against him.
Jane is talking with Nell, and insults her about her dedication to the campaign. She tells Nell she needs to pull some string with her contacts at the Bolivian State Department, in order to take votes from Castillo, and give them to Volasco (another candidate). The next scene shows the state department giving an anti-cocaine speech, which will help Volasco.
Another graphic shows the race at 22% for Castillo and 26% for Rivera with 16 days to go.
During a debate prep session, Castillo and Jane engage in a heated argument in which Jane says they are all just puppets in the political game, and that nobody is in charge. Castillo tells her she needs professional help for wanting to do anything to win.
Right before the debate with the 3 leading candidates, Jane is sitting alone in the lecture hall, reading “Faust” by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, and is soon joined by Candy. They talk about the book and Mephistopheles, with whom Faust makes a wager for his soul. Jane highlights something in the book. Not seeing what she highlighted, Candy asks about it. She quotes, “It may be alright to have a power that is based on guns. However it is better and more gratifying to win the heart of a nation and keep it.” Candy gives her a condescending compliment and tells her he plans to pleasure himself thinking about her when he returns home. Jane says it will be an honor.
During the debate, Nell observes how charming Rivera is, while the team watches stage left. Rivera then repeats the quote Jane told Candy. Jane is elated and tells the communication team to talk to the press and inform them Rivera just used a quote from Joseph Goebbels, the head Nazi propaganda minister.
Election day. Montage of the press reporting throughout the day. It is a record turnout and at days end, the results are: Castillo 23.5%, Rivera 22.8%, Volasco 21.9%. Castillo has won the election. Afterwards, Jane sends 3 Bolivian singers to show up at Candy’s door.
Eddie is delivering a framed photograph to now President-Elect Castillo’s Senate offices. He overhears him making plans to visit the IMF in New York, and is crestfallen. Later Castillo is heard instructing interest rates to be raised to 15%.
Back at Jane’s hotel, Ben calls and informs her there will be a protest downtown. A knock on the door reveals Eddie, saddened and angry, who tells her about the IMF plan. Jane tells him this is the way of politics, and it’s not her job to solve problems after the election. They make big promises that mean “jack shit.” Getting hurt is unavoidable, she tells him. Eddie replies, “what about you? What are you going to do?” and then leaves. Jane is seen having a moment of introspection.
The protest is growing in the city. Candy is outside the hotel in his chauffeur-driven SUV and offers Jane, Ben, and Nell a ride to the airport. They reluctantly agree, but the city is in gridlock due to the protests, which are on the verge of becoming riots. Eddie and his brothers join the protests and are shouting angry chants.
Before long the SUV comes to a stop in the heavy traffic on the tiny streets. Candy says he will be going to overseas for a British campaign. Others discuss plans but Jane is silent. She pulls from her bag the pottery bowl that Ben was admiring in the first scene, and hands it to him before climbing out of the car. Ben jumps out and yells, get in the car, what are you doing? They approach each other and she just smiles. Ben says, “ok. Let me know how that goes.” Jane then joins the mass of people who are walking toward the city.
Cut back to the interview that opened the film. Jane says it’s just a carousel and she was going around and around. She finally just decided to get off the carousel. She is then seen in the middle of the protest, and sees Eddie. Eventually Eddie sees her and they make eye contact. Jane’s voice is heard saying, “If you don’t like the road you’re on, start paving a new one.”