‘No’ shows the radical power of advertising
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.