South of the border political drama sells audiences on the idea of revolution
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Antonia Zegers, Luis Gnecco
Your knowledge of late-’80s Central American politics isn’t really an issue when it comes to the new political drama NO. In fact, the less you know about the rule of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the more thrilling the film will be. If your closest connection to the material is Dennis Miller’s “Pinochet Countdown” contest from “Saturday Night Live,” then you’re primed and ready to watch NO spoiler free.
The film, directed by Pablo Larraín (of the offbeat Chilean crime drama Tony Manero), examines the now inseparable intersection between advertising and politics. Though it’s undoubtedly been simplified from the real-life struggle, this based-on-a-true-story story may remind some viewers of the first season of “Mad Men.” If “Mad Men” had been set in South America. And instead of working for Richard Nixon, the boys at Sterling Cooper had been hired to run Obama’s “Hope and Change” campaign.
Subbing for Jon Hamm, we’ve got Mexican actor Gael García Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También, The Motorcycle Diaries). He stars as René Saavedra, a hip advertising executive in Santiago circa 1988. René spends his days crafting trendy, youth-oriented campaigns for soda pop companies. It was right around this time, however, that longtime military dictator General Augusto Pinochet decided to act all magnanimous and allow something called a “plebiscite” to determine whether he should remain in power. This simple “YES” or “NO” vote theoretically gave ordinary citizens the power to kick Pinochet out of office. Nobody actually expected him to play fair, of course. But Pinochet was so confident in his position, he allowed the election and even granted a generous 15 minutes of television airtime to the opposition every night for a month straight.
Here’s where our boy René comes into the picture. From what little we know about him, he’s no ideologue. His father seems to have been exiled from the country. He grew up mostly outside Chile. His estranged wife (Antonia Zegers) is an angry left-wing activist, frequently beaten up by cops and tossed behind bars. But happily apolitical René seems content simply dreaming up ways to publicize new soap operas. One day at the office, he’s approached by an old family friend, a rabble-rousing politician named Urrutia (Luis Gnecco). René is too embarrassed to admit the guy is a communist, so he constantly introduces him as a mere “socialist.” Urrutia has a proposition: Head up the propaganda campaign for the “NO” movement and produce the nightly television spots. Wary of getting involved, but intrigued by the challenge, René accepts.
What follows is an exhilarating, eye-opening look at modern politics. In a world in which everything is about image, the quietly confident René understands the election can’t be won by fear and intimidation. You can’t scare people into rising up against Pinochet. Scenes of police abusing demonstrators? Statistics about political prisoners? “It doesn’t sell,” warns René. Instead, our ad man wants to appeal to the Chilean people’s sense of hope. He creates a resolutely mainstream campaign filled with catchy jingles, easy slogans, celebrity endorsements and plenty of smiling faces. At first most of the people in the NO party feel that René’s idea are denigrating to the seriousness of their movement. After all they’re opposing a dictator who regularly kills, tortures and “disappears” his own citizens. But damned if René’s cheerful appeal for a better tomorrow doesn’t start catching on.
While there are moments in which NO feels like a faintly cynical (and slyly humorous) dig at shallow modern politics (a la Wag The Dog), it’s mostly a rousing reminder of how great the idea of democracy is. The concept of a peaceful revolution (or in this case, a peaceful counterrevolution) is thrilling. Before we know it, NO has swept us up in the fervor and excitement of late-’80s Chile. In the end, the film has a lot to say about the psychology of change. How do you convince people to vote for a different candidate or to buy a new product? Even when it’s in their best interests—trade a murderous dictator for a chance to determine their own future, for example—people often need convincing. It’s not good enough to simply build a better mousetrap—you’ve got to sell it.
NO is shot in a gritty, cinéma vérité style with handheld cameras and blown-out colors. It’s not particularly attractive to look at, but the dramatic footage blends seamlessly with the archival images scattered throughout. (Apparently Larraín lensed the whole thing on vintage U-matic video cameras.) The result is an incredibly believable, “you are there” narrative not unlike Ben Affleck’s recent flashback Argo. After all, if you wanna convince people to see a film about historical foreign politics, it doesn’t hurt to have an attractive leading man and a few thrills. It’s all about the art of the sell.