One sentence synopsis: A young Chilean advertising producer is asked to help run the campaign to vote down Augusto Pinochet's regime in the plebiscite of 1988.
Things Havoc liked: I've been waiting for a movie like this, I think. One that deals with the actual business of getting people to vote the way you want them to, come hell or high water. What methods you use to convince people to take action, even in defense of their own presumed best interests, are not always as simple as the straightforward polemics that one hears from talking heads and pundits. The mechanics of winning an election, whatever the subject or conditions, are fascinating to me, and thus I was predisposed to like this movie from the start.
For those who've never heard of it, No is a movie from Chile, set in the late 80s, when the rule of Augusto Pinochet had long-since solidified into a sort of society-wide apathy. In response to escalating pressure from abroad to legitimize his regime, Pinochet decided in 1988 to hold a plebiscite to determine whether or not he should remain in power for another eight years. Both the government and the opposition would get television time in the days running up to the election to present their cases, which is where our main character comes in. Rene, a comfortably middle-class advertising director, with a young son and an ex-wife who is considerably more politically radical than him, is gradually brought into the forces of the "No" camp, and asked to craft for them a political campaign to stamp out Pinochet forever.
And what a task he has ahead of him. Beyond question, the element of this film I loved the most was the sheer "reality" of it all. Rene's co-workers are an eclectic collection of dissidents of all sorts, radicals, moderates, socialists (the repeated insistence on ever-more rarefied terms to avoid the word 'communism' become hilarious), exiles, indigenous rights activists, students, lawyers, anarchists, the works. Merely getting them all to agree to participate in the referendum in the first place is an exercise in near-maddening futility, as fifteen years of bitter resentments are not easily set aside in the service of actually "winning". The key issue is Rene's strategy, which is to play up the positive aspects of freedom and democracy rather than yet another kludgy sermon on the evils of Pinochet. Yet when he unveils this presentation to the assembled party leaders, one of them stands up and violently denounces him and his team as collaborators who wish to "marginalize" the suffering he and his people have undergone. Refusing to hear even a word edgewise, he tells Rene to fuck himself and storms out of the building, never to be seen again. I have met these people, people so blinded by the bitterness of their own political grudges that they refuse to allow the subject of the political conversation be anything besides the evil done to them, willing to brand anyone who simply wants to win as a traitor. Yet doggedly, Rene sticks to his message, that the only possible way to galvanize a people so brutalized by Pinochet for so long is to give them a vision of a future worth seeing. Perhaps it's just a personal reaction, but I found the character, and the voluminous flack he receives from every side (radical, moderate, and reactionary), highly compelling. Though a liberal opposed to Pinochet, Rene's exhaustion with those among the leftists who want to do nothing but complain about Pinochet to one another is palpable. "I'm sick of your fucking denunciations" he shouts at one point to an aide who suggests holding another press conference to condemn the government. It's a line I could well have uttered.
The movie is shot on what looks like either 8mm film or VHS tape, giving it a grainy, washed out look, with an editing structure that cuts rapidly between scenes without missing a beat in whatever conversation was being had. The result almost resembles found footage at times, and blends seamlessly well into the whole lunatic design and feel of the late eighties (a scene where Rene and his young son sit in front of their brand new microwave and watch it heat soup made me smile). The style lends itself to a highly-realistic feel, helped in no small part by the character relationships as established and presented. Rene's boss at the ad agency, Luis, is a conservative supporter of the government, who eventually winds up working for the rival "Yes" campaign. Yet rather than the expected scene wherein the two characters rupture with one another amidst fireworks and drama, the two continue to work together perfectly normally outside the campaign, despite Luis' ever-escalating attempts to cajole, bribe, or even plead with Rene to stop working for the opposition. At one point Rene responds to an ever-escalating series of bribes all with "No, fire me", fully aware that Luis cannot and will not fire him, as of course is Luis. What might sound like melodrama is made almost comedic by the fact that the conversation is taking place on set of an advertisement shoot, with both parties being interrupted every ten seconds by actors or lighting technicians as they try to do their jobs. Similarly, when Rene's radical ex-wife mocks him as a stooge of the government for even believing Pinochet will allow the referendum at all, the result is not an impassioned speech or a drag-out fight, but the sort of sudden subject shift that naturally comes from two people who know one another well enough to know what the other is going to do and say.
Things Havoc disliked: Of course, refreshing as this style is, it does leave us with the ugly fact of just why most movies spice everything up with drama and confrontation. Removing all of the interpersonal conflict (or muting it down to a nearly-invisible level) doesn't render the film boring, but it does leave the filmmakers with something of a quandary as to what they can actually show us for the two hours this movie runs. Their answer, by and large, is political ads, most of which I must assume were lifted directly from the actual campaigns in question. These ads are interesting, in a sort of weird retro-style, but only to a point. Around halfway through, the movie freezes the characters altogether in favor of an unending succession of three different types of scenes: Scenes of politicians and activists (opposition and government alike) discussing or filming their respective ads, scenes of those ads showing, and reaction shots of the characters watching the ads of the other side in silence. These scenes contain interesting little moments (the government ads often look shoddy because none of the first-rate choreographers or artists will work for them), but given that the thrust of both sides' arguments is established early on in the movie (Democracy is Fun vs. Chaos without Pinochet), it's hard to shake the feeling that the movie is spinning its wheels through a fair portion of it. This tendency is re-enforced with the addition of several enormous (five+ minute) steadicam shots of Rene walking through a "situation" of some sort. When that situation is a brutal government crackdown on an opposition demonstration, the result is tension and interest, but not so much when it's him walking through a celebrating crowd or an advertisement set
Final thoughts: This isn't a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, No is one of the better films I've seen on the subject, effortlessly cutting through the pretensions and story "dressing" that so many films like it fall prey to. But these lengthy, almost empty stretches of film really strike me as a wasted opportunity. At the end of the movie (spoiler alert), when Rene returns to work, unchanged in circumstance save for a brief mention at a pitch meeting that he was associated with the No campaign as a sort of resume point, the intention (I think) is to show how the election, big as it was, did not instantly change people's lives. Yet in showing no consequences to any of the decisions that the characters made, it makes that point too well. An election happened, a dictator was deposed, the sun came up the next day, and the world went on. Perhaps that's how the world works, but if the subject was so inconsequential, why make a movie about it in the first place?
Good material sells itself. But a filmmaker has to have the courage to present his topic as worthy of the audience's time.
Final Score: 7/10