The recently concluded Oscar season in the United States doubled as a referendum on the responsibility of filmmakers to be historically accurate. Best Picture winner Argo and fellow nominees Django Unchained, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty were each embroiled in controversy over their deviations from the historical record.
Were the American hostages who fled Iran after the 1979 revolution really chased by a fleet of jeeps as their plane took them to safety? Did the 1865 vote to pass the 13th Amendment unfold with such high drama? Did 19th-century slaves know how to wield weaponry with such aplomb? The specifics were all stand-ins for a broader question that still seems to unsettle viewers and cultural commentators alike: what debt do artists owe to history?
In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, much of the controversy stemmed from a confusion between depiction and prescription, between what we see on screen and what we understand the filmmakers to be approving. US senators and television pundits moonlighted as film critics (although in some cases it was fairly clear that they had not even seen Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-nominated film), incensed that a movie about the decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden might show CIA operatives torturing suspects. A more engaged viewer might have noted that the film's protagonist, Jessica Chastain's Maya, is admirable without being particularly likable, that the torture results in no usable information, and that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal's framing and construction of the torture scenes subtly align us with the victim, and not the torturers. No film about the hunt for bin Laden could have avoided depicting torture without being accused of fatal complicity in covering up one of the darker episodes in American history. But depiction is not prescription. Zero Dark Thirty no more endorses torture than Lincoln endorses slavery, or Life of Pi endorses tiger-on-human violence.
The torture debate, such as it is, is the United States' exposed nerve, and touching it releases a flood of pain that most Americans would simply prefer to forget. In Chile, the 17-year reign of General Augusto Pinochet occupies similar political and emotional space, a nightmare too painful to remember and too terrible to ignore. Pablo Larraín's No, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, tackles a relatively cheery topic from that dark time - the unexpectedly successful campaign to deny Pinochet a victory in a 1988 referendum intended to grant the unelected dictator a modicum of international respectability.
Campaign and film intertwine, the mood of the one inspiring the style of the other. The advertising wizard Rene Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), recently returned from exile in Mexico, is insistent that if the "No" campaigners genuinely want to win, they must jettison their shopworn grievances. Instead of litanies of the dead and imprisoned, and descriptions of Pinochet's crimes, the revolution would be marketed like a new cola. The nightly television campaign in favour of "No",with its recurrent motto, "Chile, happiness is coming", would be loose, comic and inclusive. It would be scrupulously unpolitical in the traditional sense, preferring to paint Pinochet supporters as hopelessly stodgy and out of touch rather than malevolent. Incorporating mimes, dancers, musical numbers and comedy routines, "No" is a political campaign with the heart of a vaudeville troupe, and the film is a political thriller that often plays like a comedy.