You'll see 'No' sometime after its limited release date on February 15th. I had the good fortune to watch it on February 4th, the day after the Super Bowl, our country's unofficial national holiday for advertising; the one day of the year when viewers go to the bathroom during the entertainment programming so they won't miss the commercials. We take Super Bowl ads seriously as art as well as commerce, and maybe even as reflections of our country's headspace at a given moment. That's all beneficial context with which to view 'No,' Pablo Larrain's inspirational but clear-eyed historical drama about a real moment in time when good advertising toppled a horrible dictator.
The year was 1988. Under mounting international pressure, Chile's dictator, August Pinochet, agrees to hold a plebiscite on his presidency. Chileans had a very simple choice: vote YES, and extend Pinochet's rule another eight years (and perhaps indefinitely) or vote NO and commit to a democratic government. As part of the election, the Pinochet regime agrees to give the opposition 15 minutes of airtime on national television every night for 27 days, followed immediately by 15 nightly minutes for Pinochet's messages. Sounds fair and balanced -- except the TV was controlled by the state, meaning the other 23-and-a-half hours of the day was all ostensibly YES programming too.
Amidst these seemingly insurmountable odds -- and the widespread belief that the election was a fraud used to legitimize Pinochet's dictatorship -- the NO campaign hires a talented adman named René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) to spearhead their marketing. Most of the NO leadership wants to wallow in Pinochet's crimes, shoving viewers' faces in the lives he had silenced or snuffed out in order to maintain his control over Chile's government. René disagrees, and proposes a quarter hour of light entertainment. No heavy messages, just slogans ("Happiness is coming"). No grieving widows, just people dancing and singing a catchy jingle he hires a composer to write. He sells democracy to the public the way he would sell any other product -- with positivity, excitement and humor.
As depicted by Larrain, 'No' presents René's ads as vapid, superficial and totally successful. Bernal's character is a practical salesman engaged in a job like any other -- except when he sells, say, Coca-Cola, the owners of Pepsi don't spray paint his house with threatening messages or follow him and his family in order to intimidate them.
Many in the NO movement disapprove of René's methods, and in showing the process of negotiation and argument that shaped the campaign, Larrain gives a voice to the faction that felt silenced in the real-life plebiscite. While there's no ambiguity about the remarkable good the NO ads ultimately achieved, there's no soft-peddling their status as propaganda either. It wasn't a superior ideology that won this election; it was a superior set of commercials.
Even amidst the positive change they brought to the world, it's also easy to see the potentially dangerous precedent set in Chile. Who's to say in the next election that the despots won't hire the better ad agency? Larrain's approach is smart enough to credit the bravery of the men and women who risked their lives to dethrone a dictator, but honest enough to explore the slightly sleazy nature of their tactics.
He also employs an unusual visual technique to transport 2013 audiences back to 1988. 'No' is shot with vintage video cameras, and its grainy, gloppy, slightly fuzzy images are presented in 4:3 square aspect ratio -- the same as an old-school television. The seemingly outdated technology enables some newfangled sleight of hand: seamlessly blending of reenactments and the original YES and NO marketing materials. It makes it very easy to buy Bernal as an '80s businessman surrounded by high-waisted jeans and vintage cars; and Bernal himself is subdued but very effective as a man who refuses to let his political ideals get in the way of his political goals.
René's work -- or rather the work of several real men whose lives were composited for this fictional version -- emboldened a nation to seize a rare opportunity and take back their country. Larrain's depiction of that moment is simultaneously uplifting and unsettling. It encourages us to think a little more about the advertising we watch every day -- not just during the Super Bowl.
'No' premieres as a limited release in the US this Friday, February 15th.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’