Filmmakers are always drawn to idealists and extremists, romantic firebrands prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for a cause. (Recall Braveheart's cry: "Give me freedom or give me death.")
In contrast, there are a couple of wonderful new movies that extol the virtues of compromise and astute political manoeuvring: Steven Spielberg's magnificent recreation of Abraham Lincoln's battle to end slavery through constitutional means; and from Chile a fascinating serio-comic recreation of the referendum that brought an end to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
While the heroes of both films believe in their respective causes - to end slavery for good, to close the door on the hideous Pinochet - they realise that they will achieve their aims, not with moral thundering and fearmongering, but through the gentle art of persuasion. Both films are about politics and why it can be a noble profession.
Actually, the focus of No, which is based on a stage play, is not a politician but a young advertising hot shot hired by a loose coalition of the left-wing parties to present their case in the 1988 referendum on the future of the dictatorship.
Pinochet, who grabbed power from the lawfully elected marxist Salvador Allende in 1973, was looking for greater acceptance from the rest of the world and believed a plebiscite would be a rubber-stamp affair (or his henchmen would ensure it would be so).
So he opened up the airwaves to all-comers, granting 15 minutes TV time a day to the opposition to put their case that Pinochet should go and there should be free elections (this is the No case of the title).
However, when the leader of the left approaches Gael Garcia Bernal's Rene Saavedra, the Don Draper of the Chilean advertising world, he advises they sell the anti-Pinochet message with the same approach he uses peddling soft drink. He believes "No" is a negative message and hard to sell.
So Rene, whose own father is a famed leftist activist, sets about building the campaign, beginning with a rainbow logo that embodies the idea of a coalition, and then moves on to a full-blown Coca Cola/I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing-style commercial, full of wit and joy and happy, attractive people and - a lovely in-joke - a mime.
Not surprisingly, many on the left, including Rene's own cynical, estranged wife (Antonia Zegers), believe he's a soft-headed peddler of schlock and disrespectful to all of those who lost their lives fighting the Pinochet regime (he might even be an agent of the right, they say). But as cheesy and as ludicrously upbeat as Saavedra's campaign is, it proves immensely popular and gets under the skin of the military regime, who counter-attack, not just on the screen but in the streets, where their henchmen threaten anyone associated with Saavedra's campaign.
Even with the shadow of violence hanging over the campaign and the country, No is extremely funny. It is almost like a caper movie in which a bunch of young upstarts make their own rules (or import them from another realm) to undermine a regime whose time had come, a comic riposte to the dead hand of authoritarianism.
It's not broad comedy but smartly integrated, deeply embedded within the film's startlingly realistic texture. No has been shot on old-style Betacam and in Academy frame (the boxy shape of pre-digital television) in order to integrate the period footage with the new material, which is pulled off so smoothly I defy anyone to pick the archival from the new.
Bernal brings oodles of boyish charm to the part of the slick ad guy but the film never pushes its offbeat quality too hard. Rather, like Zero Dark Thirty, it is a celebration of process, of simply getting the job done.
No has been attacked within Chile for giving too much credit to the advertising campaign for ousting Pinochet (it also hasn't helped that director Pablo Larrain is from a prominent right-wing family). However, this best foreign language Oscar nominee is no credit grabber. Rather it suggests that intelligence rather than idealism is the way to get things done in the real world - a message, perhaps, for our own topsy-turvy political moment.
It's not broad comedy but smartly integrated, deeply embedded within the film's texture.