HBO // 2006 // 77 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // February 26th, 2008
A former dictator held captive by his past.
Pinochet's Last Stand attempts to tell the story of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's detainment in England in 1998. It's too bad this film couldn't have found a more interesting story to tell, since it can't even tell this one well.
In 1998, General Augusto Pinochet (Derek Jacobi, The Golden Compass), the former right-wing dictator of Chile who led a regime responsible for the deaths of over 2,000 dissidents, entered a London hospital for minor surgery. At that moment, the government of Spain ordered his arrest for human rights violations. What followed was a tug-of-war between British politicians, lawyers, and human-rights activists over the best way to handle the controversy that occurred as Pinochet languishes under house arrest in an exclusive London suburb for over a year.
It's hard to understand what the point of Pinochet's Last Stand is. The film is apparently meant to provoke outrage, but it's humorless, dull, talky and forgettable. The infamous military rule of Pinochet's government -- which led to abductions, torture, and murders in Chile between 1973 and 1990 -- could have been the subject of an interesting movie. There are many aspects to this story that could have been explored in any number of interesting ways. Unfortunately, Pinochet's Last Stand skips all of them.
Though it's been released under the banner of HBO, Pinochet's Last Stand is a British production that originally aired on the BBC in 2006 under the more whimsical title Pinochet in Suburbia. That title could have led to a quirky dark satire on the concept of one of the world's most infamous dictators sharing a posh London suburb with athletes and actors. It certainly would have been far more interesting than this film is. The suburbia idea is mentioned briefly, in passing, and is then dropped. In fact, almost any storyline that could have been interesting and injected some life into this is dropped. What remains is earnest but lifeless.
None of the cast really stands out. Jacobi, a classically trained Shakespearean actor, is appropriately severe as Pinochet, and even captures his attempts at being charming and thoughtful, but lacks the charisma and heft necessary to play a man who ruled a country through sheer terror. The rest of the cast is interchangeable, giving performances that are competent but unexceptional.
To be fair, the thin script doesn't offer much in the way of characterization. Everyone is painted simplistically. Nicole (Yolanda Vazquez, Children of Men), the leader of the anti-Pinochet demonstrators, and Andy (Peter Capaldi, Smilla's Sense of Snow), the head of Amnesty International, are that most tedious of dramatic roles, the earnest saint. Little is shown about them other than their righteousness. Nicole is given slightly more dimension in that her sister was abducted, tortured, and murdered by Pinochet's men, but nothing more about her is given away. In fact, her character is saddled with the two most badly written speeches in the film when she reveals her family history in lengthy, badly written chunks of dialogue. This is the kind of film where one character will ask, "What's going on?" and another responds with a long-winded diatribe on history, politics, and justice.
It's hard to fathom why exactly this film was made. The long and bloody reign of Pinochet is an interesting subject, but this is by far the least significant or fascinating period of his life. There are no revelations or details about Pinochet's life in captivity seen here. He simply putters about the house where he is detained while lawyers, activists, and politicians argue. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Anna Massey, Frenzy) drops by for tea and praises him to the press, but apparently that's about all that happened. The film even tries to have it both ways by showing a scene where Pinochet grants an interview and explains that leftist terrorists were ravaging his country and martial law needed to be imposed to fight them. Is this true? The film doesn't say.
In fact, very little of Chile's long and troubled history is really explained here. A brief opening script only gives the barest outlines of Pinochet and his regime. There are no flashbacks or scenes of Chile back during his reign, or any scenes set in any other place besides London. If viewers who know little of Pinochet or Chile watch this in the hope that they will get an idea of whom he is and why he was so controversial, they will be disappointed. There's endless chatter about Pinochet's legacy as a tyrant, but no one ever actually discusses what life in Chile was like before, during, or after his reign. The film just takes it for granted that every viewer will know everything about Chile and Pinochet. As a result, Pinochet becomes a cardboard character who is supposed to be the villain but isn't even defined enough for anyone to care about one way or another. There's no real drama, so the story gets less and less compelling as the days drag on and Pinochet is still stuck in London. The characters bicker endlessly, with dialogue that is devoid of wit or emotion, and then a bureaucratic resolution that solves nothing is arrived at. This is not exactly the stuff of high drama.
If the script is lackluster, Pinochet's Last Stand could have at least attempted to get by visually. Unfortunately, director Richard Curson Smith, who also wrote the screenplay, shot the film in the most dreary and least exciting way possible. True, it's probably too much to expect visual or dramatic fireworks in what is clearly a low-budget BBC production, but this film could not have looked any duller if it was shot in grainy black-and-white. The colors are all muted grays, it's always overcast, and almost every shot is static, with no movement or action. Names and dates are just dropped in clumsily without any context, so it's hard to get caught up in the story. The flat direction dissipates whatever meager tension tries to build. As a thriller, as compelling drama, even as pure filmmaking, Pinochet's Last Stand is a disappointment.
The film is shown in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and looks gray and washed-out, although that may just be due to the visual dullness of the source material. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is pointless, since the film consists almost entirely of dialogue and there isn't much of a score or soundtrack to use the rear speakers or subwoofer. There are no extras, which is absurd. If ever any film needed even a brief featurette to provide historical perspective, it's this one.
There's not much to recommend about Pinochet's Last Stand. Students of South American history will find little of value here, and viewers unfamiliar with Pinochet or the history of Chile will be bored and confused. The lack of anything visually or dramatically interesting will scare away even the most devout BBC fans. Unless you're a hardcore Derek Jacobi fan, skip this one.
Pinochet's Last Stand is found guilty of being the kind of drab, humdrum docudrama that gives TV movies a bad name.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 77 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated