Friday, March 8, 2013


"No!" dramatizes the campaign ad wars leading up to Chile's 1988 plebiscite.

In the fifteen years since General Augusto Pinochet has replaced the democratically-elected president (Salvadore Allende) in a bloody CIA-backed coup, countless dissidents have been jailed, tortured, executed, exiled, or "disappeared."

Honoring election provisions in Chile's constitution (and international pressure to bring legitimacy to the Chilean government), Pinochet has called a referendum. A "yes" vote would give him eight more years in office; a "no" vote would trigger a free and fair presidential election one year later. 

Getting rid of Pinochet and his iron fist appear to be a long shot. After 15 years of subjugation, many Chileans don't see any point in voting; they assume the election will be fixed. Others grimly accept the dictatorship as a fact of life, a form of inertia which one No campaign adviser calls "learned hopelessness." And even if Pinochet loses the vote count, some wonder if he'll actually relinquish power. 
Augusto Pinochet, dictator

As a minor concession, Pinochet grants the No campaign 15 minutes a day on state-run television to make their case to voters.

The fictional protagonist is dropped into this factual setting. Gael García Bernal plays René Saavedra, an advertising wizard. 

While his ex gets arrested for demonstrating against the government, Saavedra is apolitical, seemingly detached from the process. Early on, he butts heads with his partners in the No advertising campaign. Most of the No brain trust (who relish the "privilege" of free speech after fifteen years of government censorship) want to speak truth to power by highlighting the horrifying aspects of Pinochet's rule. 

Saavedra feels that stoking moral outrage is not a winning strategy. He thinks persuadable voters will be more motivated by hope than fear and creates a series of advertisements full of music, dancing, bright colors, youthful smiling faces, inclusion, and fun, in effect turning democracy into a product - complete with a rainbow logo and a theme song.  

While the No ad campaign includes a mix of hope and history, the Yes campaign draws from the universal right-wing playbook with primal appeals to selfishness, nationalism, fear, and a heavy dose of denial. Pinochet's human rights atrocities are invisible in the Yes ads; his military pedigree keeps the citizenry safe, something the other side can't do. Chilean flags are ubiquitous in spots which gush about the country's greatness, insinuating that to love Chile is to love Chile's un-elected leader. Other ads claim that the center-left opposition would kill the economic recovery, though in fact they would better represent the interests of the masses than Pinochet's right-wing plutocracy. And the Yes campaign uses red-baiting for good measure, showing a grim reaper on horseback waving a Soviet flag, falsely conflating the opposition with the dreaded commie Russians. 

Gael García Bernal as René Saavedra
Members of the movie audience laughed out loud at the flagrant dishonesty of the Yes campaign's ads; the parallels to American politics were unmistakable.  As with every American presidential election, the ads are targeted to a narrow group of swing voters (in this case, youth and lower middle-class women over 60), and while the left wheels out A-list artists, the right is stuck with second and third-tier celebrities, the Chilean equivalent of Republicans Pat Boone and Meatloaf. As the Yes campaign tries to pull the wool over the voters' eyes in Chile, George H.W. Bush is on his way to a decisive win in the United States with an empty campaign based on little but mockery of Michael Dukakis' small stature in a tank photo op, attacks on Dukakis for vetoing a bill requiring teachers to lead classes in the Pledge of Allegiance, and plays to white racial fears with the infamous Willie Horton ads.   

A good portion of "No!" consists of campaign staff on both sides reviewing the opponent's advertisements to determine their next move. Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), Saavedra's boss at his daytime advertising gig, is in charge of the Yes campaign ads. When together, both men obscure the extent of their involvement in the campaign, even as they watch each other's spots closely while apart. Advertising is one of the most soulless, repellent elements of modern life, but in this context, with so much on the line, it was fascinating to see how each side plumbed the psychology of the public. 

There's no telegraphed epiphany, but Saveedra's political awareness grows over the course of the movie. The brutal actions of the government against protesters and the consistent threats and harassment he endures from pro-Pinochet thugs make the election stakes crystal clear. As Saveedra leaves an election night party with his young son, one senses that he has connected the dots:  a victory for the No campaign is ultimately a victory for his son's future.

I would be remiss not to mention that the director's decision to tell the story of the plebiscite through the advertising campaign has generated controversy in Chile. 

the glow of victory
People who were involved in the No campaign have pointed out that years of organizing and dissent, and the campaign's ground game - particularly the registration of millions of voters - were unexplored in "No!" 

Pablo Larraín said his original four-hour cut included much more historical context, but this comprehensive vision was sacrificed to keep the narrative simple and focused, and to meet a more accessible running time.

We're back to the discussion prompted by the gussied-up suspense at the end of "Argo" and the dubious implication that torture produced crucial intelligence in "Zero Dark Thirty." The use of extensive archival footage and a U-matic film format (which gives "No!" a grainy '80s look) could suggest an authentic window into history, but major elements of the event are left out. 

What ethical responsibility does a dramatic filmmaker have to history in these circumstances? At what point does artistic license become artistic licentiousness? Is it best to preface the film with "based on a true story" and let the audience decide? 

Survivors of the Pinochet regime may be the only people fit to referee this dispute. For what it's worth, I enjoyed "No!" for a number of reasons. Bernal is steady in the lead, low-key and determined. Despite the serious subject matter there's a lot of humor, much of it dark. The excitement of an election season, of watching the tide of history build, is palpable. The pacing is spry and the subtitles are yellow. And it's hard not to leave the theater on a natural high after re-living a great moment in human liberation.   

                                                   Other "Truth and Beauty" film reviews:

                                                                    "A Spoiler-free Review of 'Mud'"

"Honest Abe Makes Sausage" (about "Lincoln")

"Errol Morris Strikes Again" (about "Tabloid")

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