Directed by: Pablo Larraín. Written by: Pedro Peirano, based on El Plebiscito by Antonio Skármeta. Starring: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers. Cinematography: Sergio Armstrong. Editing: Andrea Chignoli. Music: Carlos Cabezas. Certificate: 15. Running Time: 115 minutes. Year: 2012. Rating: 7.5
In the run up to the UK’s general election in 1979, the advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi was employed to run the publicity campaign for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party. Titled ‘Labour Isn’t Working’, a widely-seen poster focused on the high levels of unemployment under the then current Labour government, even though it was later revealed that the artwork featured 20 members of the Young Conservatives, who were photographed repeatedly in order to give the impression of a long queue of jobseekers. In the House of Commons the outraged Labour MP Denis Healey complained that the Tories were ‘selling politics like soap powder’ but, despite such protests, the ad was incredibly successful: it has regularly been described in the years since as a key factor in Thatcher’s victory that year, and in 1999 the weekly advertising trade magazine Campaign – which has long ties with Maurice Saatchi stretching back to the 1960s – awarded it the title of ‘Best Poster of the Century’.
All of which is to say that, between US presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower’s early adoption of TV spots in 1952 and the groundbreaking work carried out by Saatchi and Saatchi, the role of advertising agencies with regard to political campaigning changed exponentially, and their increasingly sophisticated practices became vitally important for anyone seeking to gain or hold on to power. Somewhere along the line a few real life Don Drapers realised that if you can sell Coca-Cola, and you can sell Marlboro cigarettes, then you can also sell a politician, a manifesto, a political party, or even an ideology.
This idea is at the heart of Pablo Larraín’s No, which completes a trilogy of films about Chile under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (the first two being Post Mortem and Tony Manero; all three are concerned with the way the regime impacts upon the lives of ordinary people). Fifteen years into his reign Pinochet announced a national plebiscite to let the people decide whether he should continue in power for another eight years or whether a democratic presidential election should take place the following year. In this film Larraín dramatises the run-up to the referendum, during which Gael García Bernal’s René, a successful ad-man working in Chile during the late 1980s, is employed by a coalition of opposition parties to oversee their joint campaign, which is built around the word ‘no’. The character is based on Eugenio García, the executive who led the campaign in real life.
Tellingly, the film opens with René in discussion with clients about an up-tempo advert for a new soft drink, which is filled with the kind of lifestyle images that suggest fun and youthfulness (and, later in life, rotting teeth and stomach cramps). René is convinced that this approach sells, and persuades the leaders opposing Pinochet to adopt a kind of positive, upbeat frivolity in their campaign to capture the imagination of the Chilean people; somehow they must persuade citizens to vote despite the lurking threat of the country’s brutal military junta. As a result sober agitprop messages about Pinochet’s human rights record – scores of Chilean citizens went missing during the 1970s and 1980s, as detailed in the documentary Nostalgia De La Luz – are ditched in favour of rainbow-drenched logos, silly commercials featuring couples in bed and dance routines, plus well-meaning endorsements from Hollywood film stars like Richard Dreyfuss, Jane Fonda and Christopher Reeve. This and other archive footage is blended in seamlessly as a result of Larraín’s decision to film on low-definition, ¾ inch Sony U-matic magnetic tape, which was widely used by TV news in Chile in the 80s. It looks cheap, by today’s standards, and the picture regularly suffers from blown highlights as a result, but it effectively transports the viewer back to this era.
In the film Pinochet’s advisers assume a win will be elementary due to fact that the country’s new-found wealth, some of which has trickled down to create a new middle class, will rally supporters into preserving the status quo. However the director captures the growing sense of unrest on the streets by focusing occasionally on René’s ex-wife Verónica (Antonia Zegers), a protester who regularly endures police beatings and arrests but carries on with her quest for change regardless. She can barely hide her disgust at what René has become: in here eyes a career-driven middle class professional who refuses to get involved with grassroots politics and surrounds himself with gadgets (a fascination with a new microwave brings to mind Jennifer Lawrence’s mistrust of the ‘science oven’ in American Hustle); there is a suggestion, however, that René is fighting certain urges in order to remain a responsible, and present, father. Still, Verónica believes the upbeat approach to be wrong, and she is not alone in questioning René’s methods: her concerns are echoed by disgruntled politicians who feel that the campaign trivialises politics and, more importantly, the country’s bloody history under Pinochet.
It’s a fascinating story, and the simplicity of the voting system makes it easy to follow if you’ve no prior knowledge of Chile or the Pinochet era. It’s particularly interesting to see the way in which the different campaigns play out, with ‘No’ relying on Santiago’s creative community and ‘Yes’ relying on the power and riches of the government (although in theory both were given equal airtime of 15 minutes per day, in truth the rest of the TV schedule was controlled by Pinochet, whose influence stretched far and wide into the media). With the odds against him René also has to cope with a number of connected problems: he is subjected to a sinister campaign of intimidation and clashes briefly with his politically-conservative boss Luis (Alfredo Castro), who doesn’t want him to take on the job. After René turns down the offer of a partnership, Luis agrees to work on Pinochet’s rival ‘Yes’ campaign, and thus the fate of the nation ends up resting, to a certain extent, on this small advertising agency in Santiago; the ‘Yes’ adverts duly begin to ape and mock the ‘No’ adverts and there’s some spying involved, but relations between co-workers are largely kept cordial. When the plebiscite is over, the pair resume work as if nothing had happened: one of several wry comments on Chilean society – particularly certain sectors of the middle and upper classes – by Larraín in this involving film.