The committee to unelect the President
In his reasonably young career, Chilean director Pablo Larraín has been fighting a hard, bitter battle against long-gone dictator Augusto Pinochet, with largely good results. His second film, Tony Manero, is a breathtakingly cynical black comedy about the degradation of culture and morality in the end of the 1970s, and its follow-up, Post Mortem, a bleak, somewhat over-thought character study about the psychological emptiness that permitted Pinochet's rise to power; both of them are niche-films beyond a doubt, and neither is free of problems, but they are unfailingly rich social studies pieces assembled with a solid if somewhat inflexible cinematic sense.
And now, Larraín completes his "Pinochet Trilogy" with No, very much the best of the three, the most compellingly-made, the most entertaining, and arguably the smartest. It's set in 1988, the year that international pressures had compelled the dictator to open up the democratic process to allow the citizens of his country to vote a straight up-or-down vote on a single question: should he remain in power for another eight years? "SÍ" would keep him in power, "NO" would throw him on his ass, and pretty much everybody on either side believed that it didn't really matter, since the odds of the election being free and fair was astronomically small. No is the story of how a brilliant marketing campaign demonstrated otherwise.
2012 may yet end up going down as the Year of Cinematic Lies; like its U.S. counterparts Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, No has come under fire for basically fictionalising the process by which this all happened, and as was the case with those movies, it's hard to say if the success of the resulting movie as a work of art excuses the misrepresentation of history. Though certainly, it is quite damn successful in that regard. The main character is an advertising executive, recently returned to Chile after many years in exile, René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), asked to "consult" on the TV campaign being run by the various groups working for the "NO" side of the vote during the precious 15 minutes per day they've been guaranteed to advance their view. Being as he is more equipped to discuss the ways you can manipulate people's hearts and minds to buy soda than to force them to confront the real and ugly issues of the world, René's revolutionary idea is to sell "NO" like a product: to associate with with peppy, tuneful images of the happiness and freedom and joy that will come with Pinochet's expulsion, thus offending or at least irking the various socialist and religious groups hoping to use the TV to raise consciousness. On the other side of things, René's boss Lucho Guzmán (Larraín mainstay Alfredo Castro) finds himself hired up by the government to find some way to counter the unexpectedly popular and effective "NO" commercials using the same techniques.
Deep in its heart of hearts, No is not about the ousting of Pinochet; it is about the way a society's appreciation of reality is shaped by media consumption. Nor in a necessarily scolding way: after all, the "NO" campaign did oust Pinochet, and the movie has absolutely no doubt that was for the best, no matter how it came about. And it's for this reason more than any other that No is such a light, funny movie where Tony Manero was funny only in bitter ways, and Post Mortem wasn't funny at all. No, after all, has a happy ending. So its satire is of a generally witty sort, certainly not above mocking the pervasive bullshit of the industry it's depicting: René's boilerplate speech about a Chile ready to think about its future, or words to that effect, is used often enough that it ceases to have any meaning; and his fixation on cramming mimes into his projects is a terrific, but not insistent running gag. There is, perhaps, a cautionary note being struck; both René and Guzmán at times seem to be more invested in the process of what they're doing than the real-world ramifications, and the essential amorality of the media in this regard is given a particularly nasty and funny poke in the outstanding final scene.
Moralising is largely kept out, though: No's twin preoccupations are with the process itself, a captivating series of little crises being smothered with panicked efficiency, and with a wider idea of what watching media product means in the first place, and it is here that the film's wary amusement at the idea of selling political change through the deliberately vague idea of an unspecified happiness comes to the fore. It is a supremely detached film, constantly circling around the idea of authenticity in every way, including its very construction: Larraí and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong hit upon the brilliant conceit of filming the whole movie on Betacam, which, in addition to reducing the film itself to the level of the broadcasts being produced by its characters, triggers both the sense that what we're watching is "more real" - since this kind of old-fashioned lo-res video reads as home videos and old TV news, things which are inherently documentary - and "more artificial" - since movies are not usually this crappy-looking, particularly ones with movies stars of the scale of García Bernal, and it's really hard to forget at any point that we're looking at something that was consciously made. It's all a way of getting at the question of where staged acts and true life lie relative to each other (it also deals with the "this is a fake story!" issue more elegantly than the American films under similar fire), and by making No itself like the campaign videos, Larraín points out what is authentic and not in each.
Which also includes finally deciding that it's probably okay to let some level of artifice into your real-world story: for just as the "NO" videos helped get rid of Pinochet, No is a hell of a movie, with an utterly captivating story and in René, a completely likeable and interesting character, and the mere fact that he didn't exist doesn't cloud that fact. It is artifice, but wholly pleasing artifice, that freshens up a decades-old story with vibrant humor and a good sense of storytelling (though it's never quite as gripping as a real political thriller would be: foreknowledge of the ending pervades the tone of the whole movie, and its few attempts to raise some level of doubt about the outcome are particularly weak). All conceptual issues aside, No is just good damn fun, and the fact that it has a complicated but very rewarding relationship to real history and faked real history is, at a certain point, just the icing.