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article imageReview: 'No' depicts TV advertising winning 1988 Chilean referendum Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Mar 15, 2013 in Entertainment
Leave it to a fictionalized period drama to celebrate advertising's potential to change the world. “No”, set during the 1988 Chilean plebiscite to vote Augusto Pinochet out of power, turns history into a feel-good dramedy about a mass-media triumph.
Not that historical revisionism in movies is always a bad thing, or that we should be surprised by it. We expect movies to add a spoonful of sugar (or a truckful) to history to make it more entertaining; sometimes, they get Academy Awards out of it, as Argo did. The irony is that No – which received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film this year, the first film from Chile to do so – could have used more of its own marketing advice. Despite an intriguing premise and a likeable lead character, Pablo Larraín's award-winning film never gets you as emotionally invested into the story as it should.
Adapted from Antonio Skarmeta's unpublished play Referendum, No is primarily a story of competing propaganda. We first meet ad exec René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) as he plays a flashy, hip new soft-drink commercial to his colleagues, including supervisor Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro). Soon, René's approached by a campaign team to help create TV ads for the “No” side of the plebiscite – a referendum in which Pinochet, bowing to international pressure, will allow Chileans to vote on whether the dictator can remain in power for eight more years. Complicating matters for René is that Lucho's working for the “Yes” side.
René, of course, has far more experience in product marketing than in political activism, so he uses the same approach here. “We're using advertising language,” he tells the others, “but building a political concept around it.” Thus the “No” vote turns into a commercial brand in itself, associated with smiley-faced images of rainbows and dancers, a cheesy jingle about a happier future, and corny visual gimmicks. (A running joke in the film is that René seems to have a weird thing for mimes.) This baffles and frustrates his team members, some of whom don't expect to win the referendum and merely want to use it to raise public awareness of Pinochet's crimes and the country's mass poverty.
Pinochet's side, meanwhile, relies on playing up the country's supposed economic advances and on fear-mongering about Communists and homosexuals taking over. “It's a system in which anyone can be rich,” one of the “Yes” campaign workers explains about Pinochet's version of democracy, before adding, “Not everyone – anyone.”
You could say No is, to some degree, Mad Men in reverse. The acclaimed AMC series may be set in the world of 1960s New York ad professionals, but its focus is really on their personal lives; this film puts personal lives in the backseat and hands the wheel to two dueling ad campaigns. But we do get to know René outside of work: his estranged wife (Antonia Zegers) is an anti-Pinochet activist who has occasional run-ins with the police, and he has a young son whose future obviously concerns him. There are subtle suggestions that René's motivations are personal as well as political and professional.
Outside of René and his family, though, there's really nobody in the movie to whom you can get attached. And you never get much of a feel for the high stakes involved, either comically or dramatically. While No makes extensive use of actual ads and stock footage from the real-life 1988 campaigns – including cameos by Christopher Reeve, Jane Fonda and Pinochet – it shows few signs of how the campaigns are affecting or influencing the general populace. True, we see the “No” campaign facing obstacles, from internal disagreements and censorship to threats of violence in the streets. But there's not much in the way of suspense as to how the actual vote will turn out. (No prizes for guessing.) The conflicts set up for pending boiling points without ever hitting them.
Larraín's puzzling decision to shoot the movie on low-definition Sony videotape (and in standard format, rather than in widescreen) gives it a cheap, grainy look that gets distracting at times. He was apparently trying to recreate the appearance of 1980s South American news broadcasts, but the effect is lost when it's transferred onto film for the big screen. Especially when he also chooses to shoot it in an unsteady hand-held style, which rings more of contemporary Hollywood thrillers and reality TV than of anything from twenty-five years ago.
An award-winner at the Cannes and Abu Dhabi film festivals last year, No likely hits the right chords with Chilean audiences and any other viewers with strong memories of the real plebiscite. For outsiders and younger viewers, the movie has its entertaining moments, but it's a much tougher sell. Maybe a real-life version of René Saavedra could have pulled it off better. Who knows?
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