By Don Simpson | March 15, 2013
Director: Pablo Larraín
Writers: Pedro Peirano (screenplay), Antonio Skármeta (play)
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Luis Gnecco, Néstor Cantillana, Antonia Zegers, Marcial Tagle, Pascal Montero, Jaime Vadell, Elsa Poblete, Diego Muñoz, Roberto Farías, Sergio Hernández, Manuela Oyarzún, Paloma Moreno
René (Gael García Bernal) is a hotshot creative for a Chilean advertising agency when he is asked to work on the “No” campaign during the 1988 Chilean national plebiscite. The democratic national referendum is being held to determine whether General Augusto Pinochet should have another 8-year term as President of Chile. Written off as perpetuating the communist agenda, the “No” campaign is actually a pro-democracy catch-all for a coalition of 16 opposition parties who oppose Pinochet. They are given 15 minutes of airtime, in the middle of the night, to broadcast their message on state-run television. From most people’s perspective, Pinochet has no chance of losing, so working on the “No” campaign seems to be a lost cause. Nonetheless, René sees it as a worthy challenge, if only to re-catch the eye of the somewhat estranged mother of his child, Verónica (Antonia Zegers), who is fervently anti-Pinochet.
Used to working on popular and slick advertising campaigns, René opts to use the same approach for the “No” campaign. Utilizing a catchy jingle and eye-catching visuals, René sells the “No” campaign the same way he would approach a Coca Cola (or, more appropriately, Free Cola) advertising campaign. News of René’s plan is appalling to old school politicos who want to use the “No” campaign as a soapbox to speak out against Pinochet’s violent oppression of the Chilean people; but ever since Pinochet delivered market-driven economics to Chile (which promises that anyone can get rich, but not everyone), the Chilean population has grown increasingly familiar with the marketing and advertising tactics of popular culture. René must unabashedly trust in Marshall McLuhan, as he wholeheartedly believes that the Chilean people will understand the modern message that he is communicating; more importantly, this approach will appear in sharp opposition to the cold and calculated advertising campaign run by the Pinochet camp.
The true strength of Pablo Larraín’s No is the medium of the message — the way the film authentically captures the visual aesthetic of 1988. Cinematographer Sergio Armstrong shot No with a circa-1983 Ikegami video camera. The hazy, off-color, low resolution footage recorded on 3/4″ Sony U-matic magnetic tape allows Armstrong’s narrative footage to match perfectly with the archival footage of political protests, riots and police atrocities; even the editing style of No seems to mimic the linear, tape-to-tape, hard edits of 1980s South American television.
No is a purely cinematic treatise on the role that technology and advertising play in modern day elections. It is not without irony that No showcases an election that was won with pleasantly cheerful advertising techniques rather than the brutally aggressive mud-slinging attack ads that we have grown oh-so-familiar with in the United States. Overtly negative advertising is the precisely the tactic that Pinochet’s campaign adopts when they sense that the electoral tide is turning, but that only pushes more voters towards the “No” vote. As an outcome, I am surprised that more U.S. political candidates have not attempted to run all-positive ad campaigns, mimicking the “No” approach in defense of overly-aggressive opponents.