Chilean director Pablo Larrain came on the scene a few years back with Tony Manero, a curious character drama that simultaneously delighted and baffled me. His new one, the curtly named No, is far more straight and narrow, but endlessly fascinating. No is the story of how a fascist dictator was overthrown by the power of dopey TV commercials.
In 1973 the democratically elected Socialist president of Chile was killed during a coup d'etat. General Augusto Pinochet took over, had the dissidents killed and suspended future elections. While the coup was supported by the United States, Pinochet's rule was eventually seen as a pariah state and faced international scorn. Sting wrote songs.
In 1988, to combat mounting pressure, the Pinochet government announced they would hold a referendum vote. It would be, basically, a vote on whether or not they should vote. If people liked the way things were going, they'd vote "Si." If they wanted change, they'd vote "No."
Now, you'd think that a dictatorship that led its citizens to soccer stadiums to face machine guns would be, you know, unpopular. But Chile's economy and infrastructure went through a tremendous modernization during the military's rule. To repeat the old phrase, the trains ran on time.
No opens on Gael Garcia Bernal, advertising genius, in full Don Draper mode. He's pitching a campaign for a new soda (called "Free") and has a modern microwave in his home. He's raising his son because his wife is a leftist who finds herself getting arrested all the time. Yet there's an implication is that in a paralleluniverse, he's on the barricades, too.
One day an old family chum comes knocking. He's part of the "No" coalition and they want him to advise on their advertising campaign. The government is allowing 15 minutes of all-channel programming for both "Si" and "No" for 27 straight days before the vote. Bernal resists at first but, in classic Hollywood form, ends up being the lynchpin for Pinochet's downfall.
Part of Bernal's initial disinterest isn't just the safety of his position or the security of his family (though both do get threatened) but because he just assumes that the voting will be fixed. What hooks him is this: Pinochet's team doesn't need to fix it. The populace is so complacent and frightened that most are planning to vote "Si."
What follows is a fantastic look into the nuts and bolts of marketing. Bernal and his allies have to convince Team No's representatives that they have to conceive of politics as a product. "No" must be a lifestyle choice. And a positive one, at that. (The naming on the ballot is no help there.)
Dumbing down is disquieting in any election, but imagine speaking to a coalition of splintered left-wing factions, many of whom have loved ones that were "disappeared" during Pinochet's initial coup. The group dynamics at play are frustrating, fascinating and, probably, very accurate.
No is a genuine crowd pleaser. It is incredibly inspiring - well, inspiring if you like to rally behind pragmatism. It is also very funny. Part of Team No's genius was to use humor in its ads, a quite bold move if you consider the seriousness and sadness behind the opposition to Pinochet.
There is one thing you should know about No that is troubling. It looks terrible. It is shot on horrible low-grade video, and I don't mean a Red from three years ago. It is intentionally shot on 1988-style camcorders. The idea, I suppose, is so the cuts to the produced No Campaign footage won't look jarring. Personally, I think it is a terrible idea. By the end I pretty much got used to it, but it was quite distracting in parts. But when I watched Tony Manero I also found myself asking "why is this funny movie so dreadfully dull in patches?" Maybe Larrain has a streak where he feels the need to distance the audience? Or maybe he just makes bonehead choices once in a while? Who knows. All I can say is that No is exactly the type of movie you need to see if you feel shy about speaking your mind politically.