No | Movie review
Pablo Larraín’s Oscar-nominated satire celebrates an ad man’s campaign against a tyrant.
It was the get-out-the-vote campaign heard round the world. Allotted just 15 minutes of daily TV airtime, a group of savvy political activists convinced an oppressed nation to cast a ballot for its future, turning a farce of an election into a democratic battle for freedom. Said oppressed nation was Chile; the election was a 1988 plebiscite—conceived as a formality to appease the international community—in which the populace could theoretically oust tyrannical dictator Augusto Pinochet. The government didn’t anticipate that the opposition, or “No” side, would pull off a triumph of marketing. In the film, a whip-smart mad man (Gael García Bernal) accomplishes more with half-a-sitcom’s nightly television time than the “Yes” side can with control of the rest of the country’s media.
Shot on ancient video, in the drab, outdated style of ’80s TV, Pablo Larraín’s No doesn’t just dramatize a fascinating historical footnote. It chronicles a global sea change: the moment when political campaigns fell, perhaps irreversibly, under the jurisdiction of advertisers. Bernal’s René has his work cut out for him. In addition to inspiring a demoralized, intimidated public, he has to convince his employers—who want to use the airtime to expose Pinochet’s crimes against humanity—that depressing is not a winning strategy. His alternative tactic: selling the cause like you would a soda, through jingles and youthful energy, to equate a nay vote with happiness. (The real, unaltered ads are amusing relics of a bygone age of commercials.) Bernal, that dependably terrific Mexican movie star, plays his character as an enigma—a shrewd huckster whose fighting spirit seems to stem less from political motives than the thrill of a real challenge. Stirring as a celebration of voter empowerment, No may also inspire pangs of wistful nostalgia. When was the last time snake-oil salesmanship was put to such noble use?