In 1988, after severe foreign pressure, Chilean dictator General Pinochet held elections to legitimatize his leadership. His tenure had been known for human rights violations and all sorts of misdeeds. Dictators aren’t known to be nice people. This is all explained to us upfront before we meet Rene Saavedra a hot young ad man played by Gael Garcia Bernal. Rene is approached to help with the NO campaign opposing Pinochet. Even though Rene’s boss is working with the YES men, Rene takes the job. Most the people think it’s a sham but welcome a chance to be heard. Rene sees something they don’t in this sharp and electric film.
Director Pablo Larrain made the bold, slightly off-putting, but ultimately rewarding decision to shoot the entire movie on U-Matic videotape. It’s anti-HD. It’s an outdated technology with low resolution, but it’s not without purpose. Larrain is trying to recreate a specific moment in time while also seamlessly intercutting lots of footage from the era. It works completely. There are a few mega-cruddy shots, but the film is still composed slickly. Because they’re trying to match TV footage from the time, the movie is also presented in a 4×3 aspect ratio. There’s something about this hardly used frame that forces filmmakers to work overtime to exceed perceived limitations and NO is no exception.
All of this could feel like a gimmick, but NO uses it to push forward a historically significant story with a satirical edge. Bernal is in top form properly playing up the absurd moments while knowing exactly when more gravitas is required. His character walks a fine line between egotistical arrogance and sincere concern and Bernal reveals these minor layers throughout the movie. Some scenes involving Rene’s home life can feel like they’re in the way. They shade the character nicely even if they don’t move the story, and the story is incredible.
Utilizing marketing tactics and imagery from Coke commercials, MTV and such, the NO campaign reshaped history. Some of the best scenes involve the creative team trying to come up with the best ways to sell democracy. It’s patently ridiculous and often hilarious (Mimes are involved as well as one really tall guy) and at the same time it makes a whole lot of sense. Advertising is nothing if not empty promises and the same can be said of politics. It’s all a charade and the film’s masterstroke isn’t the precise recreation, but this bittersweet recognition.
Even though the movie has thriller flourishes and comedic undertones, the core of the film is very self-aware. What may seem like an odd mix or strange creative choice (U-Matic) is ultimately used to present a truth beyond history. The movie gets the setting down but the evocation of futility even in the face of victory is what makes this already special film great.