Review: NO

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NO

Although set in 1980s Chile, the historical drama NO is eerily relevant to contemporary America, where politicians and political agendas are marketed like any other product.

A fictional story, NO is based on actual events during the campaign to oust Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1988. Under international political and economic pressure to bring democracy to his country, Pinochet is forced to call an election; the nation will vote yes or no on extending Pinochet's rule for another eight years.

Pinochet's opposition, commonly known as The NO, has 27 days to convince the voters to oust their leader, and is granted 15 minutes of TV airtime every evening to make their case. Pinochet also gives himself a nightly 15 minutes.

Opposition leaders hire René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), a brazen but successful young advertising executive, to create their TV broadcasts. Not surprisingly, Saavedra envisions a brash and unorthodox campaign: Rather than pandering to voters' fears of Pinochet's violent regime, the ads will present a sunny and optimistic picture of the country's democratic future. The voters don't want to be reminded of murder and repression, Saavedra argues -- they want to be happy, and the campaign theme should be "Happiness is coming if you vote NO!"

Saavedra clashes with his colleagues, who see the campaign's cheerfulness as an affront to Pinochet's countless victims. But they eventually agree with Saavedra as he commissions upbeat songs and jingles, and recruits celebrities both Chilean and foreign (among them Richard Dreyfuss, Christopher Reeve and Jane Fonda) to cheerlead for the cause of democracy.

Saavedra also gets no love from his boss, Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), who works for the competition as a powerful advisor to Pinochet. Meanwhile, the dictator's secret police often shadow and intimidate Saavedra, his creative team, and the opposition leaders.

Saavedra's personal life is no easier. His estranged wife, Verónica Caravajal (Antónia Zegers), is an activist who believes the election is a fraud and criticizes her husband for wasting his time helping the opposition. Despite his wife's derision, Saavedra wants to reunite with her and live together again with their son.

NO may the most seamless blend of reality and fiction I've seen on film. Saavedra and his family are fictional; he's a composite character based on two men who helped create the actual advertising campaign. But his scenes and other new footage are impossible to tell apart from archival 1988 news footage. Writer/director Pablo Larraín and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong took great pains to make the new material look and feel exactly like the old; they even shot the movie using 1980s-vintage video cameras. The result is that from its 4:3 aspect ratio to its low-resolution, sometimes under- or over-lit visuals, NO looks completely authentic, as if it had been shot in 1988 and sat in a film vault for 25 years.

Further tying the footage together are modern-day appearances by several people involved in the original campaign, including José Manuel Salcedo and Enrique García, the two men on whom Saavedra is based. (As an in-joke, Larraín cast them as characters working for Pinochet.) The film also shows us many glimpses of the original campaign TV broadcasts, including the relentlessly upbeat songs, humorous commercials and celebrity endorsements.

Without preaching its message, NO says plenty about the cynical, marketing-fueled nature of modern politics and its relationship to the mass media. Chile's political situation in the 1980s was vastly different from America's current politics, but both are influenced by slickly packaged, carefully crafted messages designed to appeal to voters' emotions, not their intellects. The film shows Saavedra working on ads for a soft drink when The NO campaign recruits him; he sells both products -- soda and democracy -- exactly the same way (everyone wants happiness!), even borrowing parts of the soda ads for his initial presentation to the political activists. To Saavedra -- and to virtually every campaign media manager since the dawn of television -- the message matters far more than the product itself.

NO captures the absurdities of political advertising with blistering scorn; the film is at its funniest when it dredges up The NO campaign's goofier moments. The campaign wasn't deep, but it was deeply paradoxical; its chirpily positive message told voters to vote against something, and its lighter-than-air, mostly gravitas-free content was meant to bring an end to a horrifying reality. We see similarly superficial campaigns today, with ads that ignore fundamentally important issues while pandering to voters' emotions and exploiting their ignorance. The difference, of course, is that The NO campaign's heart was in the right place: Silly and shallow as it sometimes was, it was meant to foment democracy. Many modern American campaigns, on the other hand, are blatantly anti-democratic.

My only major criticism of NO is that it's a busy, broad film that spends little time on character development, so its large cast has little chance to fully inform the characters. The actors are fine in their limited roles, but none is allowed to shine except García Bernal. A favorite actor of mine since the astonishing Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También made him an international star, García Bernal's work in NO is terrific as always. Saavedra is outwardly cocky -- it can be necessary in the ad biz -- but inwardly conflicted, especially regarding his family situation. García Bernal plays all sides of the character with his usual finesse.

A darkly funny and spot-on study of one political campaign as a metaphor for so many others, NO is an entertaining and inspiring film. It's required viewing for political activists -- and maybe for marketing professionals also.