NO (2013, Pablo Larrain): 5/10
It’s pretty difficult for me to say what I want to say about this movie without “spoilers,” so if you consider me repeating historical fact from 25 years ago spoiling anything (litmus test: did you want to know prior to seeing ARGO if the Americans got out of Iran alive?) then stop reading now.
Being the isolationist xenophobe I apparently am, I knew very little about Augusto Pinochet going into this. I knew he was a Chilean dictator and was most likely a huge asshole. I did not know that in 1988 there was this major campaign to get him out of office — not by voting in another candidate, but by simply saying “YES (give him 8 more years)” or “NO (get him out now, and we’ll figure out who will replace him later)” in a nationwide election.
Pablo Larrain’s NO is sort of a mockumentary about the TV ad campaign by the freedom fighters hoping to end Pinochet’s reign of terror. And it could have simply been a rah-rah good-guys-win formula picture where the heroes, against all odds, win the election and live happily ever after. But what I like about Larrain’s vision is summarized in the final shot (a nice little companion to ZERO DARK THIRTY, now that I think of it), where our hero (Rene Saavedra, the Don Draper hired to produce the TV ads for NO, and played by Mexican movie star Gael Garcia Bernal) has this look on his face like “Jesus, what did I do all that for — things are just as bad if not worse. What’s changed? Nothing. The future of Chile is vapid and pointless, and the freedom I so desperately fought for (and my wife got arrested for, and almost tore apart my family) is shallow and results in a bunch of shit like The Bachelor.”
Okay, so with that praise out of the way, time to get to the bad stuff. First of all, one can’t address this film without discussing the visuals. It looks like a pair of pantyhose was smeared with vaseline and stretched over the lens. Larrain has perfectly captured the look of 1988 TV cameras, so that what we see seamlessly cuts together with the real-life TV ads from 1988, but I found this choice immensely distracting. There are other ways to re-create the period — kudos to the costume department for having amazingly hideous ’80s fashion, and even giving Garcia a rat tail — without resorting to dusting off a crappy old video camera. In addition to the video stock (and the boxy 1.33: aspect ratio), the mockumentary style merely gives us handheld shots roving around the sets and offices and following Garcia around over the shoulder, basically saying who-cares to anything resembling framing, composition, or mise-en-scene. I’m not saying every film needs Emmanuel Lubezki behind the camera, but this directorial approach created a tsunami of ugliness that did not work for me.
Secondly, the narrative really sags in the second half. Once we get the idea (which is fine, and the ads are funny), it becomes a repetitive slog through the campaign, complete with requisite scenes of rebels throwing rocks in the street, things on fire, hoses spraying unruly citizens, and police in riot gear. Luckily, the cynical, downbeat ending (Garcia doesn’t even smile once from the time the winning verdict comes in through the end of the film) rescues it a bit. Plus, it’s hard to be too down on a film that resurrects old footage of Richard Dreyfuss, Jane Fonda, and Christopher Reeve stumping for the Chileans.