The true story of how the revolution was televised in Chile
[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 New York Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of No.]
Sometimes I'm glad I don't live in a swing state. If I did, I'd have to endure an endless barrage of political ads every four years. They're the same thing most of the time: attack, obfuscate, attack, "My name is _____ and I approve this message." Though in the case of Super PAC ads, it's just attack, attack, attack, money, money, money, hubba, hubba, hubba, who do you trust. The last of the memorable political ads happened well before I became politically conscious: I Like Ike, the JFK song, Daisy (though it only aired once).
In Pablo Larraín's No, the political ads matter, but that's because the stakes are much higher. It's 1988. After 16 years under Augusto Pinochet, the citizens of Chile are given an opportunity to vote for or against his regime. Whoever wins the TV ad war wins the country. Yes for oppression, no for freedom, and one guy has an idea so crazy that it just might topple a dictatorship.
What's more remarkable: this is based on a true story.
No opens with a delightfully eighties commercial for a cola called Free. It's the brainchild of René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) who works for one of Chile's better-known ad agencies. There's a synth rock jingle, bad fashion, and that transparent appeal to youth culture. (Or at least it's transparent now that advertising's become more sophisticated.) René's approached by Pinochet's political opposition to helm an ad campaign against the regime. The opposition's current ads are dour to the extreme, but rightfully so. They chronicle Pinochet's human rights abuses, how many people have died for opposing the government, the number of political enemies that have been disappeared by the state's goons.
René's unimpressed with what he sees. The commercials are all too depressing even though he acknowledges the fight for a country's soul is a serious matter. If the "yes" side wins, that's eight more years of dictatorial rule. René's got a radical idea: junk their current ads and move in a different direction. Instead of focusing on death and political prisoners, they'll market a "no" vote as something positive; a secret "yes" for Chile's future. Think of democracy as a desirable commodity, a kind of self-empowerment. No is the real thing, the taste of a new generation, less Costa-Gavras and more Coca-Cola; liberty is an ice cold beverage, freedom is just like Free.
Ads usually sell consumers something they don't know they want. René and the opposition are trying to sell Chileans something they want but are afraid to ask for. That's the implicit reason René wants to start from scratch. The old ads were all about the consequences of standing up to Pinochet -- execution, imprisonment, exile. In a sense, they were ads for the state rather than against it. The invisible slogan: if you vote no, you'll become one of the following statistics. This might be why purely negative campaigns aren't always successful -- you're attacking without presenting a positive alternative.
One of the most striking things about No is its presentation: shot on Betamax in 4:3 full frame. You notice it right from the opening titles, which are written on sheets of paper. The images have that ghostly, doubled look of magnetic tape -- kind of like supernatural 3D. The rest of the film is pulled off with more polished Betamax cinematography, so the opening titles might be especially wonky just to acclimate the audience to the video quality. The image is grainy, the colors are washed out, like local broadcast television if you grew up in the 1980s. Most of the footage is handheld, which gives No the aesthetic of lo-fi documentaries (e.g., when René's working with the political opposition) and home movies (e.g., when René's at home raising his son).
The Betamax format evokes the time and the spirit of television advertising, but Larraín has other uses for it. Actual archival footage from the 1988 plebiscite is seamlessly incorporated into the film. Betamax gives the whole of No a cohesive visual feel. We can't easily distinguish between the real Chilean ads and the narrative film. Similarly, we can't distinguish between real footage of political protests and No's recreation of political protests. Larraín executes this expertly, and it's as if all of No was made in the moment and of the time. It's reminiscent of Philip Kaufman's Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, or George Clooney's great Murrow vs. McCarthy drama Good Night, and Good Luck.
No's sense of authenticity is heightened by its performances. Bernal has always been an incredible actor, and I've been enamored as much by his natural talent as his versatility since seeing him in Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien. There are few people that can play young revolutionaries just as convincingly as they play troubled drag queens. As René, Bernal is single father, a prima dona, a man who believes in freedom, a person of integrity, a guy just doing a job, and something of an everyman. He contains multitudes. He may also still be in love with his ex-wife Verónica (Antonia Zegers), or maybe he's just lonely. Probably both. Zegers's Verónica is conflicted about restarting anything. There's still a kind of love between them since they had a son together, but whatever Verónica and René have, it's not exactly romantic. It's just complicated, like most relationships that involve separated couples. History is always complicated.
As the plebiscite vote draws closer, the No campaign gains traction through jingles and colorful ideas. The No symbol is a rainbow while the Yes ads center around Pinochet in civilian dress; the No song is catchy, folksy, and hand-clappy while the Yes song is lifeless and nationalistic. In some ways, this is a clash of propagandistic philosophies. Yes goes the route of traditional political propaganda -- speeches, anthems, gravitas. No harnesses a subversive pop mentality to push against the status quo -- spoofs, jingles, surrealism. I'm reminded a little of the 2008 Obama campaign: the positive slogan; the red, white, and blue sunrise logo; the will.i.am song; the Shepard Fairey poster. Obama-Cola has a posse, "Yes We Can" is pop for the people. And in the case of the Fairey poster, it's a positive message conveyed through the subversive aesthetic of street art that co-opts the iconography of old-school propaganda. It's imagery presented with a knowing wink, and in smart advertising, a little irony means the real deal. Besides that, it looks great on a dorm room wall.
Larraín's film like the No campaign dares to be funny. In the case of the campaign, it causes a rift in the political opposition. When the fate of a people rests in a nationwide vote, when the last 16 years have been defined by the murder of friends and relatives, is there any room for laughs? René begins to wonder that when his family is threatened for his involvement with the No camp. But in the case of the film, the comedy humanizes the story. We can see the gravity of the situation and still laugh at the absurdity of the situation, though maybe not all people will be laughing. Again, a little irony means the real deal, and history is complicated like that.
Of all the films I saw at the New York Film Festival, No was my favorite. Something about it feels urgent and alive, and, maybe because of the Betamax, it feels real. I was sold on No. It sings when I think about it, and it may be one of the best movies about politics and political messaging I've seen in years. No is Chile's Academy Awards entry for Best Foreign Film. I can't wait to see their Oscar campaign.
Alec Kubas-Meyer: The story of Jose Manuel Salcedo is amazing. The man successfully took down a dictatorship, and he did it peacefully and without needing to bring himself to the brink of death (take that, Ghandi). No tells his story through the character of René Saavedra (with a brilliant performance by Gael García Bernal). It's a story uniquely suited to election season, and I wish it was getting its US release in the next few days rather than weeks or months. The visual style, which emulates the ugliness of late 80s Chilean television, is effective at allowing old and new footage to be seamlessly interwoven, but I can't pretend that I ever actually enjoyed it. It consistently distracted from those moments that were fictional and attempted to be dramatic, which is too bad. Regardless, I came to accept the decision, since it really did benefit the film as a whole.
I wish I knew just how much of the story is based on reality, but that's up to me to go find out and not No's job to explain. Condensed history will always take a few liberties, and I don't really have a problem with that. Certainly not here, since the film thrives on its own ambiguity. So I'll think about it, what I saw and what I think I saw. I'll tell other people that they have to see it so I can discuss it with them. It's not something I'm going to be able to get out of my head any time soon. Then again, maybe that's just because of the goddamn jingle. Chile, la alegria ya viene. Chile, la alegria ya viene.... 80 - Great