‘No’ shows the rad­i­cal power of ad­ver­tis­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - 85TH ACADEMY AWARDS - by Reed John­son

Gael Gar­cia Ber­nal stars as a hot­shot ad exec who works to get Chile’s Pinochet voted out

In the United States, it’s busi­ness as usual for po­lit­i­cal ideas to be branded and sold like break­fast ce­re­als. But when those mar­ket­ing tools were used in Chile in 1988, the out­come re­shaped an en­tire na­tion — and gen­er­ated the stuff of high drama.

Twenty-five years ago, a ma­jor­ity of Chileans just said no to ex­tend­ing the regime of Gen. Au­gusto Pinochet. Only it wasn’t guer­rilla revo­lu­tion­ar­ies that top­pled the right-wing strong­man. It was a slick, Madi­son Av­enue-style ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign that urged Chileans to vote “No” on Pinochet’s plebiscite and yes for restor­ing democ­racy af­ter 15 years of the gen­eral’s au­to­cratic rule.

“The re­al­ity of what hap­pened in Chile in those days, in ’88, for some rea­son it’s not on the his­tory map, but it is a turn­ing point,” said Gael Gar­cia Ber­nal, the Mex­i­can ac­tor who stars as a hot­shot, pro-democ­racy ad ex­ec­u­tive in di­rec­tor Pablo Lar­rain’s “No,” an Os­car nom­i­nee for for­eign-lan­guage film. “It was the first time a dic­ta­tor was over­thrown by demo­cratic means.”

If the events de­picted in “No” of­fer a case study in demo­cratic means, they also raise tick­lish ques­tions about what democ­racy it­self means. As shown in the Sony Pic­tures Clas­sics re­lease, which opens March 1 in D.C., what made the “No” cam­paign rad­i­cally sub­ver­sive and highly con­tro­ver­sial, even among its sup­port­ers, was that it of­ten avoided men­tion­ing pol­i­tics or Pinochet di­rectly.

In­stead, the cam­paign blan­keted Chile’s air­waves with mes­sages that could’ve been lifted from a Pepsi spot: feel-good im­ages of peo­ple singing, chil­dren play­ing, rain­bows, mimes mug­ging and fam­i­lies hold­ing pic­nics, with slo­gans such as “Hap­pi­ness is coming.”

By ac­cen­tu­at­ing the pos­i­tive rather than dwelling on the thou­sands of peo­ple who were tor­tured, killed and im­pris­oned un­der Pinochet, the “No” cam­paign un­der­cut the “Yes” cam­paign’s dour warn­ings that turn­ing Pinochet out would mean turn­ing the coun­try over to com­mu­nist mobs. In the end, the despot was de­feated by the same cap­i­tal­ist val­ues sys­tem he claimed to cham­pion and de­spite the “Yes” cam­paign out­spend­ing the “No” forces by an es­ti­mated 30 to 1 mar­gin.

“Pinochet never even dream about it, he never thought, he never knew, that he cre­ate his own poi­son,” Lar­rain said in mildly off­beat English dur­ing a re­cent Los An­ge­les stopover with Ber­nal to pro­mote the film. “That’s why it’s so in­ter­est­ing, and that is a huge para­dox.”

In the film the para­doxes swirl around Rene Saavedra (Ber­nal), a com­pos­ite char­ac­ter based on Jose Manuel Sal­cedo and En­rique Gar­cia, two ar­chi­tects of the re­al­life “No” cam­paign. Ber­nal plays Saavedra as a brash, ini­tially some­what apo­lit­i­cal mav­er­ick who takes on the chal­lenge de­spite the dis­ap­proval of his con­ser­va­tive ad-agency boss (Al­fredo Cas­tro) and the fur­ther strains it im­poses on his mar­riage to his es­tranged, left­ist spouse (An­to­nia Zegers, who is mar­ried to Lar­rain).

The film’s tone, al­ter­nately sus­pense­ful and in­ti­mate, with a steady back­ground hum of un­ease, may re­mind view­ers of dark po­lit­i­cal dra­mas such as “All the Pres­i­dent’s Men.” It has per­formed well in lim­ited re­lease in Chile, Brazil and other coun­tries, the di­rec­tor said.

Ber­nal, 34, who at­tained lead­ing-man stature play­ing a hy­per-hor­monal child­man in “Y Tu Mama Tam­bien” (2001) and the young Ernesto “Che” Gue­vara in “The Mo­tor­cy­cle Di­aries” (2004), had known Lar­rain for sev­eral years be­fore sign­ing on to the part. Canana Films, the Mex­i­can pro­duc­tion com­pany that Ber­nal runs with his friends Diego Luna and Pablo Cruz, had dis­trib­uted Lar­rain’s prize-win­ning “Tony Manero” (2008). Set in 1978, that film is a char­ac­ter-study-cum-al­le­gory about a 50some­thing mur­der­ous Chilean petty crimi- nal who es­capes gloomy po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity through his ob­ses­sion with John Tra­volta’s char­ac­ter in “Satur­day Night Fever.”

“Tony Manero,” “No” and Lar­rain’s pre­vi­ous fea­ture “Post Mortem” (2010), set around the 1973 U.S.-backed mil­i­tary coup in which Pinochet over­threw the demo­crat­i­cally elected Pres­i­dent Sal­vador Al­lende, form a kind of tril­ogy about a sub­ject that still be­dev­ils Chile, the legacy of the dic­tadura.

That makes it a rich vein of ideas for nov­el­ists, artists and film­mak­ers, Lar­rain said, es­pe­cially be­cause Pinochet died be­fore he could be brought to trial for his crimes.

“Since we never got to really know what hap­pened, and to achieve jus­tice, what hap­pens is that the sub­ject of the dic­ta­tor­ship has be­come an in­vis­i­ble truth,” he said. “So fic­tion has a chance to really talk about it . . . since it’s some­thing you’re not go­ing to grab. It’s like talk­ing to a ghost.”

For Lar­rain, 36, who was a child when the events in his tril­ogy took place, mak­ing “No” was an ed­u­ca­tion. For re­search, he in­ter­viewed dozens of former politi­cians, ad ex­ec­u­tives, cam­paign spe­cial­ists and oth­ers. To re-cre­ate the look of the era and blend it with ac­tual archival footage, the film­mak­ers used retro­fit­ted video cam­eras.

The di­rec­tor said that he and screen- writer Pe­dro Peirano, a co-writer of the 2009 al­le­gor­i­cal com­edy-drama “The Maid,” had to leave out a num­ber of sub-themes to cre­ate a co­her­ent nar­ra­tive from a com­pli­cated his­tor­i­cal chap­ter that bit­terly di­vides Chileans. (Lar­rain said that his mother and fa­ther, who’s a con­ser­va­tive-party se­na­tor, sup­ported the “Yes” cam­paign at the time. They liked the film, he added.)

In some ways, “No” echoes the story line of an­other fact-based Os­car-nom­i­nated film — Ben Af­fleck’s “Argo.” Both movies il­lu­mi­nate how the pro­pa­ganda ma­chin­ery of pop­u­lar cul­ture can be har­nessed to serve po­lit­i­cal ends.

“No” ends on a more am­biva­lent, less tri­umphal­ist note than “Argo,” im­ply­ing that Chile’s em­brace of free-mar­ket ne­olib­er­al­ism has been some­thing of a mixed bless­ing. But it af­firms the value of loud, messy democ­racy over its au­thor­i­tar­ian al­ter­na­tives.

“It’s not an epic that was cre­ated by a screen­writer, di­rec­tor, what­ever,” Lar­rain said. “It was cre­ated by the en­tire coun­try.”


THE RIGHT SPIN: Gael Gar­cia Ber­nal’s ad ex­ec­u­tive ac­cen­tu­ated the pos­i­tive in his cam­paign to oust Gen. Au­gusto Pinochet.

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