Although the material, and director Pablo Lorrain’s muck-racking credentials, would beg to differ, No is no glum, morose drama. Far from it, in fact. It takes a shot of endorphins and battles the lows of the human experience with the highs of sharp, provocative filmmaking and an effervescent not-so-dark comic streak, tackling a serious subject and having a small, self-contained blast doing it. Kudos to Lorrain for following in the spirit of his main character and infusing politics with spunk and pizzaz, even if he runs into a few queasy moral calms along the way.
Slightly-diluted pop-grim aesthetic and rigorous commitment to handheld footage in tow, Lorrain’s scrappy spirit leaves Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet flustered and sweating, but not truly broken. This isn’t a dissection of Pinochet the man or Chilean democracy at large, even if the film makes its intent clear and its contemptuous spirit well-known. Instead, it has its sights set on the news media, and even there it has mixed opinions. That it finds warmth and lush buoyancy in this confusion about what to do with political pragmatism is perhaps a political and moral problem, but it is also inescapably the key to the movie’s success as vibrant cinema.
Tackling the Chilean election of 1988 with flair and knowing artifice, Lorrain centers on ad-man Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) who brought the fizzy, unkempt corporate flair of American advertising to Chile to great success in the mid-80s (well the film version of him does, but the man didn’t really exist in name, a point the film all-but draws attention to at every turn). When US-instituted Pinochet institutes a shady, back-handed democratic vote to decide his future presidency (intending to use the lie of democracy to corrupt and abuse in nominally more freeing terms), Saavedra is confronted with a leading role in the advertising campaign to oust Pinochet. The campaign is desperate and fully aware of their likely failure, and their participation in a ruse that will likely only further legitimize Pinochet’s false freedom, but they feel they have no choice but to use the opportunity to spread awareness of their cause.
Saaverde, ever the dogged challenger, jumps on board hesitantly, but with malnourished commitment that grows steadily over time. However, his idea about how to accrue support meets with resistance from the left who feel he is selling out their cause to his overly-happy, forgetful branding that emphasizes false progress instead of the horrors of Pinochet’s regime. Here, Lorrain catches the campaign in a blind sigh. They are unsure of where to go and ever-exasperated by the limited yet endless options, but he pushes them along with the energy of a fire-starter. His take on the material is cautiously optimistic more than preachy, not so much championing the power of the media as understanding the need for lies and having the courage not to be fully happy about it anyway.
It is entirely fitting that a film about the need for the media to lie to achieve success centers its own artifice, and that is exactly what Lorrain intends here. To capture this sense, Lorrain and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong film almost the entire production in hand-held shots, but not the grainy kinds which capture the naturalism of home-video. Instead, they recall the contradictory sheen-and-grime spirit of news footage itself, skulking about behind Saavedra as he deals and delineates like someone is taking footage of him.
Yet, most of the shots conceivably could not truly be real news footage, for the film provides no narrative justification for this, or even a logical one in many shots (we would often see a cameraman who appears conspicuously absent throughout. Furthermore, the film calls attention to this fact. It appears a conscious and pointed choice on Lorrain’s front. In turn, the film, which is all about turning the news into fiction for a greater good, self-reflexively turns its own would-be realism into falsity and artifice at every turn, reminding that someone is filming this, but it is not the news so much as it is a filmmaker with his op-ed trained camera. The end result is something that doesn’t really claim to be a true account of the election as much as a falsified, frothy, fronting magic act that uses reality as its subject. Like Saavedra’s ad campaign, the film is shifted by perspective, a conscious work of art in the name of a political cause and not the truth as it really existed, but a work of art that feels somewhat comfortable with being a lie for a greater good.
Clever stuff, but not necessarily moral. A big question hovers over Lorrain’s heart, a question about whether or not using and abusing the truth for a greater moral good is itself selling one’s soul to the devil. Lorrain plays with fire, and the question burns all over his own conscious attempt to fake up his filmmaking. He doesn’t make a statement to the validity of turning cold-hard honesty and human passion into pop-showmanship, but its hard not to see him coming down in favor. His film is undoubtedly on the side of the “No vote” to oust Pinochet, and it seems he, like Saavedra, is willing to win at any cost. It’s pragmatism, but it’s weary pragmatism willing to look back over its shoulder to see the damage it leaves in its wake. With Saavedra in particular, the good-natured charm of Garcia Bernal’s tactile performance is sapped out somewhat by Lorrain’s coarse realization that Saavedra might not care as much about the fate of Chile or the human rights abuses he is sliding over so long as he wins at any cost. As Lorrain sees it, any good Saavedra does runs parallel to his own will for success, but it is merely along for the ride.
In particular, Alfredo Castro’s role as Luis Lucho Guzman, Saavedra’s ad-exec partner turned to the dark side when his jealousy causes him to take up residence with Pinochet’s boys, does wonders for tempering the upbeat material by reminding that Saavedra’s position is somewhat circumstantial. The film finds no small amount of symmetry in the two figures, not positing them as moral opponents but situational enemies who are not so much angry at each other for their moral stance as they are for simply taking up a side without the other. They are not amoral figures, but they are driven as much by personal success as any greater social claim.
Still, it’s a win for forced contrivance and forgoing the truth for happy airs and beautified glamour in the end, implying that the dehumanizing air of corporate advertising that sells soda as well as it sells oppression can be turned on its head and used for moral grounds. This isn’t an easy claim, nor one the film commits to fully, but its support in the end still seems slightly unearned in the way that good pragmatism can, almost by definition, never go down well. No is riveting, alive cinema, but its moral concerns, its desire to champion using and abusing the media, should not be taken lightly. In flying so high (and high he does fly), Lorrain might have forgotten the bottom end.
This is especially problematic because any film that can champion questionable media tactics for good reasons could also come down easy on Pinochet himself for creating a false democracy that inadvertently became a real democracy. He stumbled upon his own demise in attempting to maintain his own power through appropriating the false openness of any democracy (including America’s) for his own purpose. We may be glad things worked out against him, but there are greater problems still with democracy, namely how it hides inequality through the guise of freedom. Pinochet tried to make this leap, and Saavedra succeeded at it, but that doesn’t mean we have to like either of them. They both, in their own way, aided society for the wrong reasons.
Still, attentive, passionate cinema is a hard thing to pass over, and if the film deals with moral questions questionably, it can’t be accused of not trying. And any film that can tackle the subject of the over-worked easy-target that is the media these days without seeming smug, standoffish, superior, or generally self-indulgent (just look to 2014’s otherwise stellar Nightcrawler for a failure on this front) has a lot going for it in my book. Questions aside, No is potent political filmmaking aware that no true story is what it seems to be, and better yet aware that it itself is as forced and artificial as the news media it depicts. That’s a rare beast, and one would be remiss to miss out.