It’s been said that one of the great miracles of America’s founding was that its earliest president’s willingly gave up power at the end of their terms and that the succession of power thereafter has always been peaceful. It hasn’t always been that easy elsewhere in the world, especially when the person in power has been there for decades. We’ve been reminded of that over the course of the Arab Spring as the masses have tried to remove people like Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad from their places of power and met with violent resistance along the way. We’ve also seen regimes fall in ways that are relatively peaceful in places like Egypt and Tunisia, but it’s still a tricky business that isn’t as easy as it should be. Of course this is nothing new and in the new Chilean film No we see a historical example of another succession of power that required a lot of blood and sweat on the part of the opposition but which ultimately worked out for the best.
The year is 1988 and while the worst of the dirty war is over, the infamous dictator Augusto Pinochet is still in power. In order to maintain the illusion that Pinochet was democratically elected he agreed to be subject to a plebiscite (a sort of referendum) where citizens would be able to vote “yes” if they believed he should stay in power for another eight years or “no” if they believed he should be removed from power. It was widely believed that the “yes” vote would win in a landslide firstly because there were many who lived comfortably under Pinochet in spite of the widespread violence and suppression, secondly because they believed that there would be widespread voter intimidation, and thirdly because there was a good chance Pinochet would just rig the election anyway. Many in the resistance were planning to boycott the election, but they still wanted to make use of the fifteen minutes of time they were to be given on the otherwise propagandistic national television station every day for the month leading up to this election. As such, the film begins the “NO” coalition approaching a fictional advertising man named René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) to produce these segments, and rather than fill this time with doom and gloom he instead decided to create an uplifting advertisement under the slogan “Chile, la alegría ya viene” which translates to “Chile, happiness is coming.”
Don’t let all the historical background scare you into thinking that No some kind of stuffy issue-film. It’s actually a pretty accessible political thriller, in fact I might go so far as to say it would make an interesting companion piece to the latest Best Picture winner, Argo. Like Argo, No take place amidst a major political event that happened during the Carter/Reagan era and focuses in on a strong-willed bearded man who finds an unconventional solution to said political problem. Like Ben Affleck’s character in Argo, Gael García Bernal’s René Saavedra is a guy who is genuinely concerned about everything that’s at stake but his isn’t over-bearing zealot so much as he’s someone who thinks he knows how to pull off an impossible job and just wants to see it through to the end even though it could be dangerous to himself. No never quite goes so far as to deal in the same kind of overt suspense that was featured in Argo’s closing scenes, but Bernal’s character does need to deal with the specter of Pinochet’s threats and intimidation, so I think the comparison is still quite valid.
Another thing that the film has in common with Argo is that it tries to replicate the visual style of the media of the era in which it’s set. In the case of Argo that meant taking on a grainy look and adding in a few other little touches like a vintage Warner Brothers logo. No is more interested in replicating the look and feel of the television of that era (specifically the news footage and advertising of the era) and that means that it was framed in the 4:3 ratio and shot on U-Matic tape, which was an analog format not dissimilar from VHS and Betamax that was used in low budget television production during the period. That means the film has that washed out videotape look as well as all the visual noise and wear you’d expect from such a format. It doesn’t mean that the film was shot lazily or that the rest of the production was cheap but it does mean that the film’s surface look is, well, kind of ugly. Normally when you see filmmakers do something like that it means that they’re trying to replicate the sense of urgency and realism of a documentary. There is a little bit of that going on here but the bigger reason I think they chose to use this format is that it allowed them seamlessly integrate archival footage with the newly shot footage. It’s a little gimmicky, but for the most part it works, and you get pretty used to it after a while.
No is a film that takes one of the most hated forces in society, advertising, and shows how it can be used for great good as well as great evil. Of course advertising alone didn’t topple Pinochet; there were almost certainly a number of other social forces at work and all of the campaign’s work would have been for naught if the Chilean military hadn’t honored the election results. One could accuse the film of presenting an overly simplistic narrative by focusing so much on the advertising, but this is a movie and not a text book, and asking it to present all the complexities of the 1988 plebiscite is probably asking too much. Instead No chooses the most interesting of the possible narratives and uses it to create a very accessible and entertaining look at a period of history that few people outside of Latin America are likely to be overly familiar with.
***1/2 out of Four