DIRECTOR: Pablo Larraín | WRITERS: Pedro Peirano | CAST: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers, Néstor Cantillana, Luis Gnecco, Jaime Vadell, Marcial Tagle | Chile
The Chilean referendum of 1988, organized according to Chile’s 1980 Constitution, was held to decide whether to keep Augusto Pinochet in power until 1997 or to transition away from a military dictatorship with the formation of a democratically elected Congress. In the face of international pressure not to rig the elections in order to give a patina of democratic legitimacy to his rule, Pinochet cynically gave the two dozen or so opposition parties a single 15 minute block of nightly free television air time for a month to mount their campaign. Pablo Larraín’s No tells the story of the ultimately victorious “No” ad campaign, focusing on the junior TV adman, René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal, excellent as always), who was asked to produce the television spots by a coalition of opposition groups and had to fight his initial reluctance to get involved. Saavedra grasps instantly that too many messages, especially too many negative messages reliving the horrors of the recent past, would work to Pinochet’s benefit and he insists on selling the “No” vote as he would any other product — a soft drink, a microwave oven. The “No” campaign’s spots are a mishmash of happy-clappy singalongs about a sunny tomorrow, brightly smiling pretty people, and yuck-yuck comedy skits with the occasional serious political content, but the thrust is overwhelmingly the kind of artificially sweetened, optimistic junk that pop culture rams down everyone’s throats. (OK, I’ll get off my soap box.) Larraín’s brilliant stroke was to shoot the entire movie on vintage video cameras so that the integration of actual footage from 1988 is virtually seamless in all its bleeding- and blurred-color glory. I don’t think No is an especially great movie, but it’s a very smart one that is optimistic about the power of the people to effect real political change for the better even as it undercuts that optimism with a demonstration of how easy it is to sway people with brightly colored junk.