Film Review – No
In director Pablo Larraín’s No, we see the advertising campaign that toppled a dictator. The short version is this: in 1988, Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet was forced to create a referendum in which, if the people voted yes, he would be given eight more years of rule. If they voted no, he would stand down. As part of the referendum, the opposition was allowed fifteen minutes to present arguments to vote No and allow democratic elections. This is the little information we get into this time and place, and it can be jarring keeping some things straight. But given time, this film is a miraculous look at what perseverance and talent can accomplish.
The film was shot on video support U-matic 3:4, which is what was used in the late ’80s, to give it a sense of the time period and to mesh up with the ads that were created. The technique doesn’t take you out of the action, and eventually it becomes less noticeable as the story becomes clear. Our entry into that story is René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), an ad executive who is brought in to help the opposition that has never had a chance to speak and get their message across. What he sees is a message of fear, going over all the violence and disappearances Pinochet has inflicted on Chile. René decides that if they want to win this vote, they need to knock people out of fear and make a message of hope, that the future will be better. He creates a campaign like any other commercial, with happy people, celebrity endorsements, humor, and a catchy jingle to get at the idea of what a better Chile can be. They also show the hypocrisy of the leadership in their attempts at responding to basic truths and the hopes of the oppressed.
These ads create a conflict among those who want to be more serious, because now they are able to speak their opinions for the first time in years. Many become emotional about the horrors they have experienced, which lets us see what people have gone through under Pinochet. It also upsets Pinochet’s government, which sees that their own advertisements are not as effective. They turn to René’s advertising boss to create more appealing ads. The contrast with René and his boss is interesting; the boss is more in with the leadership and sees that his life is going okay because of it. Yet he is also aware of how much better René’s work is and still has him work on other accounts. What the boss actually feels is unclear; he in many ways represents those who are afraid, but also comfortable enough that they don’t want to rock the boat.
Everything isn’t clear on all fronts. René is a bit of a blank slate; we start with him making a pitch to a cola company. As we get further in, we learn about his home life, including that he has a young son he adores and has difficulties with his wife. Beyond that, there is little about this character to know. Also, some of the issues the characters have are somewhat confusing. One conversation between René and his boss and his co-workers about the ads being a copy of a copy is still unclear to me, as to the meaning of the conversation and the scene. We have issues brought up but never acknowledged, especially with leaders of the No campaign, who like or dislike some of the segments. We never get sense of what resolution was made.
Where we get our greatest insight is in seeing the people living their lives in Chile and the fear that Pinochet has created. We see the importance of what the No campaign is working for. We see intimidation and police beatings; we hear the stories of people who have just vanished. Those on the No campaign are never certain if the vote will even matter, and the threat of being arrested or just disappearing is ever present. The mindset of the ruling military is given a voice as well; we see that they stand by the stability and economic success that Pinochet has given the country and the sense that Pinochet has been so dominant the last seventeen years that he cannot be removed.
These contrasting ideas are at the heart of what Larraín does in this film. In creating the mood of Chile in 1988, he deftly handles the matching of advertising gimmicks and grim reality, which divided a society for years, to show the power of hope. It can be hard and scary, but the end results can be worth it.
Final Grade: B+