With the constant drone of the 2012 campaign season still ringing in our ears, it’s hard to imagine building a heroic narrative out of political advertising. Yet that’s exactly what Pablo Larraín manages to accomplish with NO.
The fact-based story takes place in 1988 Chile, where international pressure on the dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet has forced the government to hold a simple yes-or-no referendum on his continued rule. Each side is given 15 minutes of nationally broadcast nightly airtime for 27 days to make their case, and the opposition wants successful ad exec René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) to help with their cause. Initially reluctant, Saavedra eventually creates a series of commercial spots that could change the country’s course.
As might be expected in a story of this kind, the narrative eventually finds the government forces subtly threatening Saavedra and his son, forcing the old “is my cause more important than my family” dynamic.
But even there, screenwriter Pedro Peirano—working from Antonio Skármeta’s play—shakes things up a bit through Saavedra’s complicated relationship with his son’s activist mother (Antonia Zegers). Larraín similarly undercuts familiar elements by shooting in a grainy, 1980s-vintage commercial video, adding a you-are-there documentary sensibility to what could have been slick triumph-of-the-underdog melodrama.
Yet the real delights in NO come from the ads themselves, and from the internal debates in both camps over their preferred approach. Fighting against radicals who want to emphasize the violence and oppression under Pinochet, Saavedra pushes the notion of playful, optimistic, often hilarious spots that look more like soft-drink commercials. There’s also an effectively edgy dynamic between Saavedra and his agency boss (Alfredo Castro), who happens to be in charge of Pinochet’s “Yes” campaign and begins designing their ads specifically to respond to the “No” campaign’s public-relations success. It’s fascinating to watch a historical drama about the political clash between style and substance, and find one making the case that sometimes style is better.
Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers