No

Pablo Larraín’s No, much like a recent American film, Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, obsesses over the visual language of the era it portrays.  Soderbergh shoots Side Effects like a depression-medication TV ad gone awry, sterile and overexposed; Larraín and crew shot No, which takes place in Chile in 1988, on tri-color U-matic tape — a queasy, dull, glorious old format.  Style and content intertwine gracefully in both films, but in Soderbergh’s movie the motive is analytical and ironic, meant to generate a skeptical remove from the characters and their obsessions.  No, on the other hand, is a warmly penetrating exercise in historical immersion.  The outmoded tape stock invites you into the world almost instantly; it meshes with the format and look of archival footage, and the editors perform an agile dance with the material, sewing together strands of fiction and strands of research-documentary into a coherent visual whole.  Philip Kaufman’s films have done this in a few choice sequences; No turns it into an entire system.  It’s the kind of gimmick cinema was built for–the look of the film seeps into the dramatic soil, and what could have been fussy becomes deeply felt.

The film’s stakes are thorny.  Gael García Bernal plays idealistic young blood as René, the executive of a fresh ad campaign against Augusto Pinochet in Chile’s 1988 referendum. René becomes determined to create a peppy, starry-eyed tone for an inherently negative campaign against the dictator, all while navigating disgruntled colleagues, a partner on the other side of the fight, and a son who needs raising.  The 15-minute TV spots he creates are laughably ridiculous, but the manipulation works — “No” becomes a hip word, and political choice is transformed into consumer persuasion.  But where does that leave René?

Most of the answers to that question — and most of the film’s warmth — come from García Bernal’s naturally sympathetic, clear-eyed presence.  In No, García Bernal offers up a genuinely complex male hero — a hero who grows and changes, who makes embarrassing and boneheaded mistakes, who expresses doubt over his evolving duties as a citizen, father, and mass storyteller.  His moral quagmires are subtler than most of the situations American movie protagonists find themselves facing these days, but maybe René’s closest companion is Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, navigating and abetting the terrors of U.S. government.  Both characters are seeking something that may or may not be right to seek for personal or political reasons, but they’re nevertheless infected with an obsession that uproots their internal understanding of a people, culture, or nation.  They blaze through their respective films, walking, running, or skateboarding, but their own ideologies are murky and unclear.

The film invites you to wonder whether those ideologies matter at all, and its conclusions may not be entirely satisfying.  But No is a keen, glowing, poignant film–a trick worth saying yes to, at least here, at least now.