When it comes to international history, I have a lot of blind spots, on account of a piss-poor memory, not paying enough attention in the various history classes I took over my academic career and an until-recent general apathy towards things that happened in foreign lands, especially from before my adult life. Prior to seeing No, I knew absolutely nothing about how Chilean dictator Pinochet lost control of the country. I knew that Augusto Pinochet had taken control of the country through a coup, which I recall hearing was secretly backed by the U.S., and so I always assumed his power fell in the wake of another coup or an of-the-people revolution. And while the latter is kind of true, the unbelievable story of how he lost his power is far simpler and, therefore, vastly more interesting, as expertly brought to life in the clever film No.
Set in 1988, the film neatly gives us the key background information through a series of slides that fit into the mold of the “advertising presentations” that quickly become a key part of the story. Pinochet is a bad man facing a small opposition that has been ineffective due to the tight clamp he keeps over the country. As a result of international pressure strengthened, in part, by a Papal visit to Chile, Pinochet has agreed to a “plebiscite,” which is essentially a referendum vote on his presidency. That is, there’s no opposing candidate, the voters are simply choosing “Yes,” that Pinochet should remain in power, or “No,” that someone else should take over. As part of this plebiscite, Pincochet has established a television protocol, where each side will have 17 minutes a night, in the month leading up to the election, to air whatever they’d like in support of their cause over all the public stations.
And so it is that we come to meet René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal). Saavedra is like the 1980’s version of Don Draper, a young and dapper ad exec who is expert at closing his firm’s pitches. The team behind the “No” campaign is made up over a dozen opposition groups who don’t really expect to win and who can’t even agree upon a unified message or theme for their television campaign. So they wind up reaching out to Saavedra, who they hope is of a mindset to help them given that his estranged wife is a radical activist who opposes Pinochet. Saavedra winds up taking the job, despite his wife’s protestations (she’s actually so against Pinochet that she thinks the plebiscite is a rigged fraud and that playing along is simply conceding) and his boss’s vocal opposition to this side-gig (his boss happens to be a staunch loyalist working closely with the Pinochet group). The story from here is simple. The “Yes” and “No” ads go back and forth, but when the opposition ads turn from attacks on Pinochet to a message of hope and happiness, they begin to gain a groundswell that winds up bringing home the vote in their favor.
Because this is a relatively simple and straightforward story, there’s a risk that it could be presented in a way that comes off as droll or, worse, too self-important. Thankfully, the script (adapted from a play) has a subtle undercurrent of humor, which shows that it’s not taking itself too seriously, even though it’s taking the events themselves appropriately seriously. Working with this script, director Pablo Larraín comes through in spades. The film is shot and presented on old, grainy film, with a washed out color of the UHF stations of a bygone era and it’s presented in 4x3 proportions, that boxey look our pre-widescreen televisions had. The reason for these decisions quickly become clear, which is that Larraín wants to seamlessly blend his film with intercut video from the actual “Yes” and “No” campaigns that ran in the 80s. Because of the way he shot and cut the film, there really are moments when you don’t know whether you’re watching an actual ad or Larraín’s work, which not only helps to keep the viewer engaged, but highlights the real message of the film, that the blurred line between truth and marketing is constantly shifting in an almost quantum-observer way (that is, the more you think you know exactly where the line is, the blurrier it becomes).
For someone like me, completely history blind to the facts of the time, it took a while to get fully up to speed, particularly when it comes to understanding where allegiances lie or oppositions abut. But Larraín clearly knows what he’s doing — what could be a complicated morass of political machinations is, instead, smartly presented in a way that does not hold the viewer’s hand but which rewards the engaged viewer with an eventual understanding of everything that is happening. In fact, I think this even explains the one directorial choice I walked out of the theater not at all understanding. Primarily in the first third of the film, there are a lot of long dialogue scenes which frequently cut mid-sentence to different locations. So while the conversation may start at a bar, moments later it is suddenly taking place as the characters walk down an abandoned road. At the time, I was focused on trying to figure out if this was the “same” conversation or cuts into different conversations about the same thing, but that misses the point (though I think the answer is the former). I was “focused” on these scenes and what was being discussed, absorbing and engaging with a lot of exposition of political beliefs and alignments. This movie hooks you in quickly and does its best to hold onto you.
It helps, of course, that Gael García Bernal is helming things on the acting side. He’s always fantastic, but as much as I love him in films like Amores Perros, Y Tu Mamá Tambien and The Science of Sleep, this may be his best performance yet. His Saavedra, an amalgamation of two real-life players in the “No” campaign, is grounded while being ever-so-slightly mischievous, a loving father, a concerned husband, and a conflicted political player. It’s a complicated role, yet Bernal smoothly slides into it and gives us this performance that is earnest without being melodramatic. This is an important movie and this role and performance could have been bogged down in the weight of it, but like the film itself, Bernal keeps things light without detracting from the seriousness of it all. It’s remarkable and arguably one of the best performances I’ve seen in the last year.
Long story short, if you can’t tell, I loved No. It’s been nominated for Best Foreign Film in the upcoming Oscars, where’s it’s facing off against Amour, among others. It will likely lose to the frontrunner (which is also an excellent film), but don’t count this underdog out. Amour is a sad, depressing, soul-crunching movie (meant in the best way). Plus, it’s about old people death, and a lot of the Academy voters are old. So it may be that they’re ultimately turned off by the film and, instead, finding themselves looking for an upbeat, but still “important” film. And that’s No. Truthfully, were I a voter, I’d cast my vote No’s way as it’s a more innovative and impressive example of moviemaking. I also wish I were a high school history teacher (something I’ve never wished before), as I’d love to use this film as part of a curriculum on the powers of propaganda campaigns (we always think of propaganda being used to prop dictators up, not to take them down). But I am neither of these things. Instead, I’m just a humble movie critic telling you to seek out and watch this excellent film.
Gene Shallit votes “yes” for No!
No screened at Sundance 2013 as part of their “Spotlight” series, showcasing films from other festivals.