The Chilean director Pablo Larrain has made a loose trilogy of films dealing with his country's years under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Without having seen the middle film, 2010's Post Mortem, I'd suggest tentatively that the role of the media in Chile is an important subject of the series. The first film, Tony Manero, dealt with a man obsessed with Saturday Night Fever and getting on television. The latest, No, is a handheld epic about the 1988 referendum that marked the end of the Pinochet era, filmed in a deliberately ratty style as if it were a compilation of home movies (or video) of the time. The style seems appropriate for a film concerned with the power of television. Despite the particular place and time of the story, No has a strong thematic (if not ideological) resemblance to another 2012 release, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. The films have in common a mildly Machiavellian attitude toward politics that has offended some idealistic observers. As American audiences know, Lincoln focused on the shady means justified by the morally indisputable end of abolishing slavery in the U.S. Spielberg and Tony Kushner's moral could be summed up as: we don't have to convince you that we're right; we just need your votes. No arguably boils down to the same argument. Its protagonist is Raul Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), a onetime exile -- his father was politically active -- working in the advertising business as the story opens. He produces TV commercials and is approached by the Chilean opposition to consult their upcoming ad campaign. In response to international pressure, the Pinochet government has called a plebiscite to determine whether the general will stay in power. Many in the opposition are skeptical, assuming that the government will rig the results, but many also want to take advantage of the opportunity created by the allotment of 15 minutes of air time each night during the run-up to the vote. Since few expect to win (or be allowed to win) the vote, they want to use their nightly spots as a consciousness-raising exercise. They carry understandable grudges against the regime for its persecution of the left and dissidents in general. They think that calling people's attention to Pinochet's crimes is the most important thing. But Raul has a more radical idea: why not play to win?
The plebiscite is a simple yes-or-no vote, and Raul's idea is to make "No" an attractive product. His innovation is to bring the same techniques to political advertising he applies to commercial advertising. As a result, the No programs look much like the colorful, upbeat and utterly banal montage Raul put together as a soda commercial (the brand name is "Free") at the start of the picture. While the full-time politicians want to speak truth to power or lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive revolution, Raul insists on sticking with the core idea: No = Happiness. "Happiness is Coming" is the No slogan, illustrated with peppy music videos and skits, interlarded with the occasional pointed reminders of Pinochet's tyranny. Like something out of classic Hollywood, the No campaign catches on and the opposition now has a real chance to win. The regime goes on the defensive as Raul's boss from the ad agency turns the Si campaign from the original all-hail-great-leader extravaganza to response-attack ads against the No campaign. Meanwhile, the regime can't restrain itself from thuggery and starts an intimidation campaign against Raul, breaking into his house, defacing his car and threatening his son -- the mother, Raul's estranged wife, is an activist who's already taken some knocks herself. There's a nice irony to the story as Raul feels some pain of his own during the campaign after disparaging his clients' desire to vent their pain and rage in the No spots. And there's a healthy ambivalent note at the end when he finds himself unable to share fully in the opposition's joy when, against the odds, No wins the plebiscite. For Raul, it seems, the biggest consequence of his political intervention is how good it'll look on his résumé.
While Larrain and writer Pedro Peirano, adapting a play, clearly worked independently of Spielberg and Kushner, No and Lincoln are both concerned with the arts of persuasion in a democracy. The American film was clearly pushing against an allegedly idealist mentality that too often found itself out of options if it couldn't change the minds of opponents. The Chilean film, to me, seems less convinced of the correctness of its protagonist's approach than Lincoln is. The Spielberg film is a more triumphant vindication of cunning tactics while No is a constant struggle between the opposition's idealism and commitment to truth and Raul's seemingly-cynical approach; some downbeat material makes it into the programs over Raul's objections. There's a slight thematic echo of Tony Manero in Raul's determination to turn a historic moment into an ad campaign, to remake the world in the image of his cola commercial, even if in a good cause. And there's too much attention to Raul's lingering alienation -- like an overgrown child, he commutes by skateboard in tracking shots that belie the primitivist art direction -- for us to see the plebiscite as an unambiguous triumph of his tactics. Of course, like Lincoln, No has been criticized by idealists who prefer to see politics as the triumph of Ideas, or of The People, rather than a game of manipulating people, and the Chileans will be better judges of the facts that I can be. Neither film is as simplistic as critics portray them, and No is the more subtle, less cheerleading if not otherwise superior film of the two. It's the more interesting film visually because of the efforts by Larrain and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong to recreate 1988 in all its jittery color and the nearly-invisible art direction that makes the illusion work. Bernal isn't a barnstormer like Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role, but he makes Raul as compellingly complex a character as Day-Lewis's Lincoln -- only Bernal starts from scratch. No and Lincoln really would make a great international double-feature. Each may be a historical film, but their real historical value may be as documents of the dilemmas of liberalism in 2012.
Here's the original No campaign music video as uploaded to YouTube by kntayal.