The strange bedfellows of politics and publicity are at the heart of Pablo Larraín’s historical film about the 1988 Chilean referendum to decide if dictator Augusto Pinochet would remain President for another eight years. No depicts the workings of the anti-Pinochet advertising campaign that was allowed to air for 15 minutes a day during the lead-up to the referendum. It is Larraín’s third film about the Pinochet era and uses both the film’s content and form to address how politicians and the media manipulate reality in order to produce an emotional response to influence democracy.
No challenges the manipulative power of the moving image not just within the context of the advertising campaigns depicted in the film, but in the way cinema represents history. The film is based on true events, but features a fictitious advertising man René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) as the protagonist. Participants in the campaign act in the film as versions of themselves, intercut with actual footage of themselves as they originally appeared in the various televised spots during the campaign. Larraín has shot No with the same low quality U-matic video cameras that were used for television broadcast in Chile throughout the 1980s, further blurring the boundaries between actual archival footage and fictionalised presentations of real events. This mix of actual participants in archival footage with re-enacted scenes starring a famous international actor deliberately creates confusion about what is real and what is a constructed version of reality. It is not blatant self-awareness nor is it a distancing technique as the film remains engaging throughout, but it stands as a point of difference to films such as Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012) where history is transformed into a classical Hollywood narrative genre film or Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012), which adopted a faux-cinema vérité style to deliver an aesthetic of realism.
The visual style of No very successfully informs the themes and narrative of the film, which concerns the extent in which René compromises the importance of the anti-Pinochet movement in order to produce a successful advertising campaign. The tension is between the desire to act truthfully and with integrity versus the desire to do whatever it takes to convert undecided votes into No votes. The politically active left members of the No campaign want to use the allocated airtime to finally speak out about the terrible economic inequalities and human rights abuses under Pinochet, while René wants to sell democracy like he would sell a consumable product. René wants a jingle written, the leaders on the campaign want their dead comrades to be honoured. The validity of René’s fun message versus the authentic and politically engaged message is deliberately left ambiguous throughout the film. As René argues, the culture of fear in Chile has resulted in a ‘learned hopeless’ that only an upbeat and forward-looking ‘happiness is coming’ message can seriously hope to overcome. However, the film also cynically portrays René as somebody who brings the same rhetoric and false enthusiasm to every client he is working for, regardless if promoting democratic freedom or Free Cola.
The Yes campaign are similarly portrayed as being preoccupied discussing image and, later in the film, how to undermine the message of the opposition through ridicule rather than actual criticism. At one point the pro-Pinochet camp even discusses their desire to have key members of the No campaign made to disappear, but cannot do so because of it would be a bad look considering all the international scrutiny Chile was experiencing. The Yes campaign identify the appeal of Pinochet’s capitalism as selling the free-market belief that anyone can get rich (as opposed to everyone can get rich) and everyone thinks they can be that anyone. René’s opposition in the Yes campaign is his boss and colleague Lucho Guzmán (Larraín regular Alfredo Castro) who also wishes for his campaign to succeed by doing whatever it takes. While working on another campaign he is shown to be developing a strategy to ‘infiltrate the news’ by creating an attention-seeking media event, suggesting the calculated way news media has become compromised by commercial interests.
Given how the film begins and closes with René and Guzmán going about business as usual, despite being on opposing sides during the campaigns, it feels like No is making a grim and depressing statement about the superficial nature of media driven political events. And yet, the fact that the outcome is the desired one suggests that like it or not, reducing politics to emotional triggers is effective and can be used for good. But how does that ultimately serve democracy? Was wining the No vote against Pinochet worth the compromise that in the long run does so much harm to democracy? Larraín deliberately avoids conclusive opinions or statements. On the one hand it is hard not to feel cynicism by the film’s final scenes or by René initially being most worried about his car in a scene where a No rally is violently broken up by the police. René motivation to take the campaign is for the professional challenge, and possible prestige. He seems more annoyed and unsettled when witnessing violence or experiencing harassment, rather than outraged. And yet Larraín still portrays him as a sympathetic character who is reluctantly separated from his radical and politically active wife and attempting to raise a son.
Ultimately Larraín presents René as something of a tragic figure who even when being instrumental in achieving the No vote against Pinochet, is still a product of the regime’s unsustainable, aggressive and reductive economic liberalisation. Unlike the older and more pragmatic Guzmán, René does display a passion for his work even if the motivation and approach seemed to contradict the message he is broadcasting. However, through Bernal’s acting and Larraín’s direction, there are enough moments to suggest that while René may not ever feel politically engaged, he does get a sense of the momentum and exhilaration of being part of something bigger that his own immediate ambitions and concerns.
Even through the battle was won the residue of the system remained. And it is a system based on artifice and illusion: the illusion of equality and the artificial belief of a strong economy when 40% of the population lived below the poverty line. The prosperity of Chile was as illusory as a soft drink branding campaign, a supposedly glamorous photo-shoot of soap-opera stars or a film that pretends to be historically accurate without acknowledging its own limitations and manipulation of actual events for cinematic purposes. No is none of these things because it directly addresses its own artificiality and that of its protagonist and the artificial campaign his real life counterparts devised to end a deceitful and abusive dictatorship. René may be left looking exhausted and disillusioned while once more saying the same lines of dialogue he uses in pitches, but the conversation about how politics are packaged and presented go far beyond the confines of the film, making No an extremely perceptive and intriguing examination of the effect that media hype and spin have on the political process.