Funny how little has changed after 25 years.
The time is 1988. The place: is Chile, South America. For 15 years, Augusto Pinochet has been running a dictatorship if there ever was one. Those who oppose him are those who disappear, and everyone in Chile knows it. Eventually, the rest of the world’s leaders decide to kinda sorta do something about it by pressuring Pinochet to put his rule to a vote. Rather can cause an international crisis, Pinochet agrees and puts the fate of his office in the hands of his people. Those who want him to stay vote “YES,” those who want him to go vote “NO.” In the month leading up to the election, each side is given 15 minutes of airtime each night to promote their cause on television. No is the story of a commercial director with a comfortable life and no real reason to get involved. Nevertheless, he puts his life and livelihood on the line in order to lead the “NO” campaign to victory with a feel-good approach that no one thinks’ll work.
Pretty sure I’ve mentioned that history has never really been my strong suit, and believe it or not, Chilean history is no exception to the rule. Weird, huh? I don’t know about the rest of ya’, but everything in that last paragraph was news to me, and you should have seen me try to explain it to my wife.
“Wanna go see this movie with me? It’s getting really good reviews.”
“What’s it about?”
“Well, it takes place in Argenti…Venezue…South America, and it’s about this advertising campaign to take down Augusto Pinochet…”
“Who’s Augusto Pinochet?”
“Dictator. Bad dude. Anyway…”
“It’s in subtitles, isn’t it?”
“…The main guy is really good-looking.”
“…I’ll pay for dinner?”
Such is the burden of being married to a movie nerd. I should really pick up an atlas one of these days.
Anyhow, despite having a near-infantile knowledge of the events at hand, the appeal to No was there. The good reviews never hurt, so does Gael Garcia Bernal’s track record/acting chops, and what’s not to like about movies that end with a vote? Just look at Lincoln, I could barely breathe during that vote and I totally knew how that sucker was gonna turn out!
Not only that, but it seemed like there was a sort of timelessness to No. I’m no marketing wizard and by no means am I trying to parallel political or cultural climates, but the “NO” campaign’s whole happy-go-lucky approach instantly made me think of the campaign that Obama ran in 2008. Obama’s ’08 campaign wasn’t fueled by smear tactics or finger-pointing over past mistakes even though it very easily could have been. Unlike that mud fight that just wouldn’t seem to end last year, his message was one of hope, change and bridging divides for a brighter tomorrow. In case you missed it, it worked like gangbusters.
As to how it’s working today? Well…talk amongst yourselves.
What’s interesting is that the “NO” campaign plays out in a very similar fashion. When our guy Rene Saavedra steps up to take the reigns, the old guard expects him to shine a light on 15 years of torture and oppression that’s touched the lives of just about everyone in Chile. After all, why wouldn’t you go down that road? That’s why there’s a plebiscite in the first place! But that’s not Saavedra’s goal, and that’s not his story. He’s from a privileged family, he has a fruitful career, and his only real connection to the tyranny of Pinochet is his son’s mother who spends most of her days getting locked up for protesting. To him, the “NO” campaign isn’t about seeking justice, it’s about winning. And if there’s one thing he knows, it’s that torture and oppression don’t sell.
Happiness, on the other hand, is a hard ticket to beat.
I can’t stop thinking about why writer/director Pablo Larrain went with a character like Saavedra to be the face of this story, because the more I think about it, the more levels it keeps working on.
It goes without saying that the “NO” campaign is an easy one to root for and that when it’s time to tally the votes, you’ll be hard-pressed to be uninterested. When you boil it down, it’s the good guys versus the bad guys, simple as that. Now, if we’re going by movie logic, an underdog story like this is usually driven by a man or woman of the people. An Abe Lincoln, a Norma Rae – that kinda crowd. But once again, that’s not Saavedra.
He’s not a “bad guy” by any means and it’s not like he’s unlikable either, it’s just that he’s invested in this campaign for reasons entirely different from our own and those around him. We’re all in it for a democratic Chile, but it’s hard to say at times why he’s even in it at all. He rarely gets emotionally involved and his biggest incentive for sticking around seems to be bragging rights that he won’t even brag about. He’s an advertising man and the “NO” campaign is just another job. Sounds like a cold dude, a dude who in many ways is not unlike Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. But yet you care about him, because you care about his mission, because you want him to succeed, because – unlike Maya’s campaign – the happiness that surrounds him is nothing short of contagious.
And that’s messing with me, man, because part of me feels like Saavedra’s character doesn’t belong in this story. But the more that I’ve thought about it and how it relates back to that ’08 campaign, the more I’ve come to realize that there’s more to this story than I was originally expecting.
On the surface, this is a story about the fight for Chilean democracy. Under the surface, it’s about getting people to drink the Kool-Aid. One would think that they’d cancel each other out, but despite their conflicting natures, they work rather harmoniously together. Not to mention that both are still incredibly present in our world today. As effective as it is in telling this fascinating, universal story about fighting for freedom under a banner of smiles, it’s just as effective in telling this subversive, universal story about propaganda and manipulation. When all is said and done, it’s hard not to feel like one of the manipulated in turn, but how can you really tell if you would have voted “NO” to begin with? Like I said, it’s an emotional head trip, and a brilliant one at that.
It also does a fantastic job of blurring the lines between fact and fiction. From a visual standpoint, it looks like Larrain dug up all the best camcorders that the ’80s had to offer and hired some hard-up bystanders to be his crew. It ain’t exactly crisp, but it’s not supposed to be either. The idea is to make you feel like you’re watching a document rather than a recreation, to make you feel like you were there when it was all happening. When scenes are filmed, they’re filmed with the grace and style of one of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Actors are used in staging the filming of the commercials, but it’s the genuine article that we’re treated to when the ads are actually broadcast. Even the dialogue can be hard to keep up with as characters talk freely with and over one another throughout.
The name of the game here is authenticity, and though its VHS trappings may not be everyone’s cup of tea, y’all can color me impressed. Really made me feel that much more invested in a movement and a story that I had no real connection to at the start. And who am I kidding, image quality’s overrated anyway.
Needless to say, No is one inspired, multilayered and affecting story about democracy and “democracy,” one that’s only gotten better the more time I’ve had to think about it. I don’t know how much it will appeal to those not taken by Chilean history or subtitles, but it really is worth a go if any of this sounds the least bit interesting. Because even if all this mumbo jumbo isn’t exactly selling you on it, it still works really well as an inspirational slice of human history.
And, as per usual, Bernal does not disappoint. Got all kinds of time for that guy.