While Pablo Larraín’s No is based on the very real, historic televised ad campaign to get Chileans to vote dictator Augusto Pinochet out of power in the national plebiscite of 1988 (Pinochet’s party had an opposing ‘Yes’ campaign), it’s important to remember that it is, first and foremost, a work of fiction. The central character of René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), a young ad-man fresh from exile in Mexico who’s called in to revitalize the ‘No’ campaign, isn’t a historical personage but an invention of Antonio Skármeta, whose play ‘The Plebiscite’ the screenplay is adapted from. No is not a biopic or a documentary; it’s a dramatization of real events from a very specific, fictionalized viewpoint. Viewers shouldn’t expect to come away with an incredibly nuanced understanding of the plebiscite or the country’s recent history. What one might more reasonably expect is a very well crafted and acted period piece that’s both a character study and and a cinematic examination of advertising as a reflection of a society and its politics (to make the unavoidable comparison—yes, much like another impeccable period drama, Mad Men).
Larraín’s chose to film on Sony’s antiquated U-matic tape format (restricting the aspect ratio to the boxed-in 4:3 of old TV). The tape format gives the narrative the same washed-out, analog look of the extensive archival footage (which includes lots of clips from the actual ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ ad campaigns) that he interweaves into the film. What results is a seamless integration of the audiovisual cultural memory of the plebiscite with the contemporary fiction of Larraín’s story of the efforts of a group of people to influence the political direction of their country. The fiction nestles comfortably within the real-world recorded history of the period, sharing the same dated aesthetic and this giving it a sense of crudely beautiful verisimilitude. From the hair and costuming to sets and cinematography, the film’s recreation of the era is faultless and surprisingly original. Larraín’s choice of format can be equated with using black and white cinematography or muted colour schemes to evoke the cultural memory of the 1940s and early 50s, eras which exist in monochrome on much of our historical media. It also plays a thematic role in reminding us of the artifice (and importance) of media itself in constructing our perceptions of our own cultures and their past, present and future.
The film has been lauded by North American and European critics, garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and the Art Cinema Award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. But it provoked a somewhat more wary response in its home country of Chile, with some naysayers including the real-life director of the ‘No’ campaign, Genaro Arriagada, calling it out as being simplistic and unrepresentative of the larger effort that underpinned the movement to topple Pinochet’s regime (detailed in an article by Larry Richter in The New York Times). This is perhaps inevitable, considering that Pinochet’s 17-year regime and its remarkable overthrow are still fresh in the nation’s collective memory, and those involved in those events are understandably protective of guarding the history they helped make from being trivialized.
I would argue, though, that these criticisms, while understandable, don’t necessarily match what No actually ends up being. At no point does the narrative make an explicit correlation between René’s populist revamping of the ‘No’ ad campaign into a day-glo, MTV-influenced cheese-fest that emphasizes an optimistic future instead of dwelling on the injustices of the past, as being directly responsible for the ultimate result of the plebiscite (historical spoiler alert: Chile voted ‘No’ to more Pinochet). Indeed, while this story just about begs to be rejigged into an inspirational Hollywood movie where the ad campaign is a sincere reflection of René’s individual heroism, Larraín’s vision is a more ambiguous one.
The screenplay repeatedly suggests, with wry humour, that René’s pop-western vision of a Pinochet-free Chile is a sugary fantasy that doesn’t reflect the complexity of the nation’s sociopolitical situation or the weight of the responsibilities ahead. A picnic scene is derailed when the cameraman angrily points out the absurdity of prettified Chileans eating baguettes, while an equally frustrated René counters with the assertion that it “looks nice.” The hyperactive, MTV-influenced aesthetic and cloyingly overwrought sensibility of the ‘No’ campaign is never showed as anything but shallow, with René’s estranged activist wife Verónica (Antonia Zegers) telling him it reflects “the mentality of a five-year-old,” and the other campaigners criticizing René constantly for diluting the message of the anti-Pinochet coalition. The “five-year-old” comparison is apt, as René is shown to be a somewhat child-like, naive man, unable to make his marriage work (often looking at his fiercely self-motivated wife with something approaching fear) and meditating on his work not on a couch with a whiskey, Don Draper style, but playing with his son’s toy train set. This uncertainty, offset by his ambitious demands while working on the campaign, is played with understated assurance by Bernal in another excellent performance.
But whatever the flaws of the campaign that René helps fabricate, the film also makes clear the vitality of that insincere, pandering artifice in the context of its historical moment. It becomes clear that the campaign’s rainbow colour scheme, its cheery optimism, its levity, provide a clear counterpoint to the crushing realities of living under a dictatorship. In some way, the campaign really does say “freedom,” in the way René claims a cola-ad does as he’s pitching it to a client. The actual content of the ‘No’ ads and the cola ad isn’t all that different (both have a mime, for one thing). But it’s all about context. One’s an ad for soda, one’s an ad for the future of a country. The ultimate victory for democracy over tyranny in the plebiscite doesn’t belong to René or the ad campaign (as the film’s critics have also pointed out), it belongs to the people who voted Pinochet out of power. As the victory fills the streets with celebrating, we see René staggering in shock through the crowd while his allies confidently speak to the news crews and usher in a new era. He feels out of place, fearful, almost. But when we leave him in the end, he’s being touted as a creative responsible for the successful ‘No’ campaign, while pitching an ad for a soap opera that is so astounding in its vapidity that it’s comical. So it goes. Despite the realism of Larraín’s measured narrative and recreation of the era, one can’t help but catch a whiff of satire here, especially when one makes the correlation between marketing and politics today.