Back in the feisty days of ''It's the economy, stupid,'' a lot of people looked at James Carville, with his gimlet eyes and fight-the-bastards strategic moxie, and saw a stubborn idealism embedded in his snaky cunning. The difference between then and now is the difference between The War Room (1993), the shrewd and lively Clinton-campaign doc that show-cased Carville as a rascal hero of realpolitik, and Our Brand Is Crisis, a fascinating glimpse at the perils of ''exporting'' democracy.
In the new film, directed and coedited by Rachel Boynton, a group of pollsters, strategists, and advertising aces from Carville's plush consulting firm, GCS, journeys to Bolivia in 2002 to head up the campaign of ''Goni'' Sánchez de Lozada, one of 11 candidates for president. They bring along all the tricks and techniques the focus groups, ''on message'' slogans, and negative advertising that have transformed American politics into such an arid megabucks version of democracy in action. As Bolivia, drowning in poverty, teeters on the edge of breakdown, there is some support for Goni, who had already served as president, but many despise him for what they regard as his having sold out the country's poor. In its way, Our Brand Is Crisis is a cliff-hanger can the Carville Touch work in Latin America? but what's eye-opening, as well as depressing, is that the film reveals how even the politics of a nation's life and death can now be reduced to a technocratic shell game.