Review: No

Young ad executive René (Gael García Bernal) rushes forward in Pablo Larrain’s smart political/media thriller.

“Why is there a mime in the middle of my commercial?”

A good question, nameless Chilean soda executive. The brief clip that opens Pablo Larrain’s “No” may advertise a (near as I can tell) fictional soda called FREE, but were it not for the inclusion of a certain kind of maligned, silent street performer, it would otherwise have been quite familiar to American TV viewers from the late 1980s. But René (Gael García Bernal), the enthusiastic young ad man pitching the mimetic spot, earnestly assures his client that everything they see is entirely in keeping with “the current social context” in Chile.

The absurdity of the mime and René’s jargon-spouting defense establish in the film’s opening scene Larrain’s deft handling of a story that is alternately light-hearted and deeply serious. For the nation of Chile, the crimes of Augusto Pinochet and his authoritarian regime were no laughing matter; but like his pragmatic protagonist, Larrain is savvy enough to know that suffering doesn’t sell. By simultaneously smoothing over historical complexities and winking at itself for doing so, “No” bears a certain resemblance to “Argo;” and like Ben Affleck’s Oscar winner, Larrain’s film is likely to ruffle a few feathers of those who find its narrative too simple, too convenient. But, as with René’s advertisements, “No” is ultimately more about evoking a specific time and place (and the corresponding state of mind) than every detail of truth – just pay no attention to the mime behind the curtain.

The similarity between “Argo” and “No” gets rather eerie when it comes to the leading men: René, like Affleck’s Tony Mendez, is a quiet, bearded man with a family life that isn’t so much troubled as it is somewhere in the distant aftermath of troubled. In scenes with his ex-wife and young son, René is caring but subdued, long resigned to the life of a single parent/divorcé. Where he comes alive is at work, where it’s established that he’s one of the best ad men in the business – think Don Draper, only without the cynicism and arrogance and casual alcoholism. Politically, he’s something of a cipher (perhaps out of necessity, given Chile’s paranoid climate in the late ’80s) – his father was a prominent exile and he seems to have a considerable number of leftist friends, but when approached to consult for the anti-Pinochet campaign in Chile’s 1988 plebiscite, it’s entirely unclear whether René accepts out of ideological sympathy or the lure of an irresistible professional challenge.

Superficially, René’s contributions are everything you would expect from an advertisement specialist: treating democracy as a product rather than a boring old system, the “No” campaign quickly adopts a catchy theme song, brightly colored logo, humor, celebrity endorsements and completely random imagery all designed to telegraph HAPPINESS to the viewer, as if they were peddling male enhancement pills rather than freedom from an oppressive dictator. To no one’s surprise, he draws the ire of many of the movement’s supporters, who wish to take the opportunity to seriously educate the Chilean people on the ills of their society.

But the real secret weapon that René has to offer is confidence. Those who criticize his work are the same who believe in the fruitlessness of the entire enterprise – after about 15 years of political repression, it seems unlikely that Pinochet will hold to his word and recognize the results of the election, and even if he did, the General might win based on Chile’s economic advancements anyway. René’s strategy gives the assorted commies, socialists, democrats and anarchists the notion that they might actually win, and such assurance is often a self-perpetuating thing.

Rather than film on actual film stock or even digital, Larrain opted to make “No” on video tape, giving the entire movie the look and feel of the same TV broadcasts that make up the heart of the story. It’s a neat conceit that both allows the director to seamlessly switch back and forth from the mini-films-within-the-film to the plot proper, and avoid (or integrate) the dated quality of the video; it feels more like we are thoroughly inhabiting the ’80s than anachronistically looking back on them. The incorporation of actual footage from the real-life “No” campaign also allows Larrain to play a few cinematic tricks, as when a newscaster and a prominent politician play themselves – appearing older, as they do now, only to pop up again magically twenty years younger a few seconds later. A testament to the deceptive powers of television if ever there was one.

The film as a whole manages not to push that angle too hard, however. In the end, the television campaign only comprised of nightly, 15-minute segments broadcasted for about four weeks leading up to the plebiscite: a strong factor, perhaps, in swaying undecided votes, but certainly not the only one. The story’s focus on René and these advertisements might lead one to over-simplified conclusions about how Pinochet was deposed, but Larrain hints at the other grassroots efforts going on around them even if he doesn’t directly address them: a large anti-Pinochet rally scene in particular does an excellent job of broadening the stakes and creating a pervasive atmosphere of unrest beyond the TV studio.

The film’s weakness lies in those pesky family scenes, in which Bernal does an excellent job of looking successively dejected and concerned, but in general remain too vague to strike much of a chord. René’s ex-wife is seen to be ardently political – did they split up over his apparent apathy, or were there other issues at hand? It would seem so, since his work on the “No” campaign seems to make nary a dent in their relationship. René’s family ends up feeling like little more than a story element to be manipulated, something to increase the tension when the ad man is inevitably threatened by shadowy Pinochet henchmen.

Like Matthew Wiener’s “Mad Men,” “No” revels in the subtle manipulation and psychology behind advertising – the most spirited sequences (in a generally brisk film) show René and his colleagues at work, in breezy behind-the-scenes montages. But Larrain’s film is more optimistic than Wiener’s show, which so often lingers on the melancholy that comes with the end of an era; “No” looks ahead, to Chile’s future, and finds something to coyly smile about.

Playing in some indie theaters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

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