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Like baseball movies, election movies tend to get binary and boring. Here comes that final pitch, and it'll be a grand slam or a strikeout, and either way our hearts will ache, right? Not always, thankfully. Revisiting the 1988 plebiscite by which Chile shook off a terrible dictatorship, director Pablo Larraín's film nicely subdues feel-good instincts in favor of nuanced, stoic insight. It depicts the surreally historic moment when international pressure forced a referendum on the Pinochet regime, and pro and con campaigns sprang up to duke it out on Chilean TV. Gael García Bernal stars as a hotshot ad exec who takes charge of the risky bid to rally fellow citizens against eight more years of official brutality. Told he needs an anthem, he shrewdly insists on a jingle instead — "Chile, happiness is coming!" — and the battle for freedom takes shape as a contest between callow, too-chipper "advertising language" and duplicitous, fear-mongering propaganda. Larraín makes great use of García Bernal's watchful, worried eyes; the stakes rise steadily but remain intimate within the understated dynamics of our hero's estrangement from his young son's mother. More daringly, the whole movie was shot on U-matic video, for that visually parched, late-'80s look. Dipping freely in and out of archival footage to establish a repressive context, it is an ugly sight. But then, this was an ugly time. With the TV imagery and the jean jackets looking equally washed out, Larraín's aesthetic cleverly enlists the audience in yearning for a more beautiful future. It also illuminates a moral intelligence that's rare among retrospective election movies: something beyond just black and white.
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