“No” suffers from trying to be, and succeeding at, being far too realistic.
As preposterous as this criticism sounds, a promising political drama based on true events surrounding a 1988 election campaign in Chile abandons all the fundamentals of modern movie making. There’s no soundtrack. There’s no witty dialog. There are no special effects. The performances aren’t particularly memorable. As a result, a potentially riveting political thriller drags badly in this poorly-scripted, abysmally-shot re-enactment which debuted last year in Chile. It’s now finally making rounds in American movie theaters, its longevity based on being nominated earlier this year for an Oscar in the Best Foreign-Language film category.
“No” has the sophomoric look and feel of a film school project shot with a couple of Beta cams. That’s because director Pablo Larrain curiously decided to shoot his entire movie with the same outdated videotape stock used by actual television news crews during the 1980’s, when this film takes place. He presumably did this to add the look of realism. Borrowing a visual device that worked masterfully when Steven Spielberg employed World War II-era Bell and Howell movie cameras to film the famous Normandy Beach scenes in Saving Private Ryan (1998), the same technique might have proven a powerful cinematic accompaniment had it been used selectively. Instead, the entire movie is shot in a grainy film texture which not only becomes annoying, but quite distracting after the first few scenes when we realize this is the way the entire will be. It becomes like trying to watch a movie through a dirty window pane.
This is unfortunate because “No” had great potential. The movie is all about the 1988 political referendum on the brutal dictatorship of Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet. One of the most despised political leaders in Latin American history, Pinochet ruled the South American nation of Chile with an iron fist between 1973 and 1988. However, his dictatorship faced growing international pressure to hold free elections, and so a national referendum was called in 1988 to vote on the question if Pinochet should be allowed to stay in power.
The premise sounds rather simple. But after the military junta’s 15 years of disappearances, torture, intimidation, and media control, those Chileans brave enough to work on the “No” campaign took enormous risks, both professionally and personally. What if they worked against Pinochet and then lost the election? What would then be their fate? Would they ever work again? Would they eventually be arrested? Could they end up as political prisoners? “No,” which gets its name from the actual anti-Pinochet campaign, recounts the atmosphere of fear those brave enough to oppose the dictator had to endure during the 27-day campaign. Given the overwhelming odds stacked against them, no one — not even the movement’s most committed followers — gave the “No” campaign a chance.
But if that was the case, we wouldn’t be watching a movie about these events some 25 years later.
That’s where the star of “No” comes in. Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal plays a young hotshot advertising wizard hired by the anti-Pinochet (“No”) movement to orchestrate its media campaign. The very real issue of how to run a national campaign amidst this culture of fear gets compounded by a deep divide within the camp between those who want to use this rare opportunity to showcase Pinochet’s horrific human rights abuses versus the younger pragmatists who view the selling of a candidate about the same as marketing soft drinks and toothpaste.
Given the extraordinary circumstances of this unique moment in history and all the subplots of running an underdog campaign fraught with danger, one can immediately see similarities to some of movie history’s best political thrillers — including Z (1969), The Candidate (1972), All the President’s Men (1976), Primary Colors (1998), and most recently — Argo (2012). Had “No” employed a top-notch screenwriter and shot the movie in a more conventional manor (on standard film, for starters), it might have taken its place among the pantheon of great political dramas. Instead, a fascinating story gets lost in the abyss of a poorly contrived and under-budgeted mess.
One final note: Without revealing any spoilers, “No” is probably a must see for political junkies if for no other reason than to watch this unlikely campaign unfold, and at times completely unravel before ultimately becoming a serious challenge to one of the most notorious political and military regimes in Latin American history. This is a fabulous story with some truly mesmerizing moments of triumph. However, the film fails to convey these remarkable real-life events in a manner worthy of those brave heroes who actually set out to achieve the impossible.
In Spanish with English subtitles.
ONE STAR OUT OF FIVE