Tuesday, August 5, 2014

No (2013)

NoLast Fall, we were treated to the triumph that was "Argo", a historical political thriller the likes of which we hadn't seen much since the 1970s. About the same time, another historical political thriller from Chile was released in certain foreign markets, after making a splash at the 2012 Cannes film festival. The movie is now finally being released into US theatres, with a DVD release on the horizon as well.

"No" (2012 release from Chile; 115 min.) brings the true story of how the military regime of Pinochet, under pressure from the international community after 15 years of dictatorship, called a referedum in 1988 on whether General Pinochet should stay on for another 6 years. A "yes" vote meant another 6 years, and a "no" vote meant the end of the Pinochet regime. As the movie opens, we are introduced to René Saavedra (played by Gael Garcia Bernal), an advertizing wizzard (we see him presenting a new, US-style, commercial for the "Free" brand of cola). Saavedra is approached by the NO campaign to bring some new ideas to the table. We get to see the actual commercials that were being considered or used by both the YES and NO campaigns, and they are dreadful on both sides. When Saavedra makes his pitch to the NO side (namely, "we need to sell a product that people will want to buy"), the initial reaction of the NO campaign is very negative, even hostile. At that point we are just about half-way into the movie and to tell you more would ruin your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.

Several comments: first and foremost, writer-director-coproducer Pablo Larraín does an outstanding job in bringing us a good feel for the build-up of the NO campaign (at some point someone exclaims "We need more content! We'll never be able to fill 15 minutes of TV airtime every day!"), and how it all leads up to the frantic last days of the campaign. Second, the movie is shot as if to bring you the late 1980s for real: the movie is shown in a 4:3 ratio (rather than the usual 16:9 widescreen ratio), and is shot as if this is a home movie, with heavily grained images and light contrasts. Third, I read somewhere that the movie was made on a shoe-string budget, proving once again that you don't need a hunder million dollars to make an exciting and engaging movie. The art-house theatre I just saw this at here in Cincinnati was absolutely packed, which is great news indeed. If you are in the mood for a top-notch quality foreign movie, you cannot go wrong with this. "No" is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

"No" in its first minute is a jarring visual experience. It's grainy and shaky, as though it were a youtube video blown onto the screen, and it's only well into the movie when we realize that the visuals are meant to evoke the visuals of late 1980s Chilean television so that actual television footage from that era could match seamlessly with the rest of the film. Once we overcome this psychological hurdle we come to appreciate "No" as a moving and stirring tale.

It's 1988, and Pinochet's military dictatorship of Chile has endured for fifteen years. Facing growing international pressure (namely, US pressure), the dictator decides to hold a referendum whether to extend his rule by another 8 years. It seems to the majority of those most opposed to him (40 percent of Chileans live below the poverty line, and there are tens of thousands of political dissidents either killed, exiled, or disappeared) that the referendum is just a sham, and they are determined to ignore it. But one adman (played by the always wonderful Garcia Bernal) is determined to get the apathetic (the young) and the scared (middle-class women in their sixties) to vote, and to finally topple Pinochet from power.

There are two dimensions to the film, both equally powerful and effective. The first dimension is how a political/media strategy is formed and executed with limited resources. Knowing that Pinochet's first weapon of choice is to instill fear in Chileans, the adman wisely decides to instill hope, excitement, and optimism with a colorful, funny, and irreverent media campaign. He carefully calibrates that to stir people into action you should not remind them of the terrible times and sacrifices made in the past (people would rather forget these things), but remind them of the good times ahead if Chile were to become an open and free democracy.

The second dimension is the adman's personal struggles that reveal the deep tensions within Chilean society, and here the director has used a lot of creative license. The adman is married to a political dissident who lives with an artist when she is not in jail, and she constantly reminds him how by seeking to struggle he is helping to legitimize the fraud that is the referendum. His boss in the ad agency is close to the dictatorship, and he becomes the dictatorship's main media strategist, and thus the adman's antagonist. And he has a son whom he is trying to protect from Chile's political turmoil while fighting to create for him a better future.

The premise of the film -that a media campaign that lasted for 15 minutes on television for 27 dyas -toppled Chile's military dictatorship is shaky at best, pure fantasy at worst. Nevertheless, "No" is a very stirring film that will be celebrated by Chileans for a long time as its "Birth of a Nation."

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You might notice as the film No begins that the colors are faded, the images aren't very crisp and the whole thing kind of looks like a Youtube clip of an MTV video they recorded back in the eighties. And then you'll begin to observe that this is a good thing. The tattered cinematography allows the director, Pablo Larrain, to weave news footage, telenovela clips, commercials and music videos from a quarter of a century ago seamlessly into his political drama of the 1988 referendum on the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, drawing the viewer back to that time and place.

This Chilean made, Spanish language film tells a fascinating story that makes reading the subtitles well worth the effort. In 1988. Pinochet was feeling the pressure from other nations (particularly the United States), to put himself in the hands of the electorate after years of military dictatorship. The vote will be a simple one. "Yes" means Pinochet will be in power another eight years and "No" means he must leave office.

The "No" campaign has little hope of success. They are given 15 minutes of television air time each day for twenty days. The "Yes" campaign also has 15 minutes a day (along with the other 23 and a half hours a day, along with glowing press and radio coverage guaranteed by the dictatorship).

The "No" campaign is composed of all political parties opposed to the President: Communists, Social Democrats, Libertarians, etc. Most have little hope of actually winning the election. But they hope to use the air time to expose the wrong doings of the government. They envision a daily barrage of the names and faces of the people wrongly imprisoned, killed or "disappeared" by the government.

But along comes a director of television commercials who wants to run a very different campaign. Rene (a fictionalized version of a real ad man played by Gael Garcia Bernal) wants to sell democracy using the same jingles, happy images and garish colors he uses to sell soda and microwave ovens. Many are appalled that these important issues would be trivialized in such a way, but Rene has one advantage that others in the campaign lack: he believes he can win.

The film follows Rene's work to use all that he has learned in advertising (humor, imagery, marketing, etc) to bring down a dictator. Along the way, he is threatened with the loss of his job, his home and the safety of his family. But he persists.

Now if you want to avoid spoilers, please don't look in any South American history books before you see the film. The central conflict in the film reminded me of one that many organizations face, that even the Church faces: should we ever compromise the things we hold dear to make our beliefs and values more palatable to the world?

Watching the film, I thought about G. K. Chesterton's response to critics who reprimanded him for making jokes about serious topics: "The truth is, as I have said, that in this sense the two qualities of fun and seriousness have nothing whatever to do with each other, they are no more comparable than black and triangular" and "[The critic] thinks that funny is the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else."

Read Best Reviews of No (2013) Here

...Once again proves what a diverse actor he is. As a devoted GGB movie fan I highly recommend this movie.

Want No (2013) Discount?

Like "Argo," Pablo Larrain's "No" hurls us right into the center of a recent historical crisis. And, like "Mad Men," it is a compelling portrayal of the advertising game, and how it can be used for good or ill. In the case of "No," ads are used very much for the good.

"No" is set in Chile in 1988. The dictator Augusto Pinochet has been in power for 15 years; Chile enjoys prosperity under his rule, but at the cost of vicious political repression, including the "disappearance" of thousands of dissidents. Facing a tidal wave of negative international opinion, Pinochet schedules a plebiscite--a simple up-or-down vote, "Si" or "No," as to whether he should be allowed to stay in power for another eight years. A "No" would mean an orderly transition to the formation of a new government.

Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), a hotshot Santiago ad man, at first is indifferent to the plebiscite; his life is good, after all. When the opposition asks him to orchestrate the "No" ad campaign--a mere 15 minutes every late night in the month before the vote, as mandated by Pinochet--Rene at first refuses. But when he sees Pinochet's police rough up his estranged wife Veronica (Antonia Zegers), he changes his mind on the spot.

Opposition leaders have no hope of winning the plebiscite, and seek merely to stake out the moral high ground against Pinochet. Rene, however, is bent on winning. He overrules the lofty ideas of his employers in favor of a happy, bouncy ad campaign to associate a "No" vote with progress and a better future for Chile. The campaign strikes a chord with Chileans, but Rene and his crew face increasing threats from Pinochet's thugs. Furthermore, Rene's boss, Lucho Guzman (Alfredo Castro), is handling Pinochet's ad campaign, and is not above stealing tapes of Rene's ads to orchestrate rebuttals even before the originals air.

Ben Affleck fit old videotapes of the Iran hostage crisis into the state-of-the-art Hollywood photography of "Argo." Larrain tried a different strategy in "No;" he shot the entire film on Sony magnetic tape, the kind that was ubiquitous in 1980s news coverage. "No," a much lower-budget film than "Argo," obviously lack "Argo's" polish, but Larrain's choice means that the old footage from the Pinochet era fits seamlessly into the film as a whole, giving it a rare, gritty verisimilitude. However, "Argo" also seemed pretty seamless and truthful. Which strategy was better? You be the judge.

What is undeniable is that "No" is less polished as a whole than "Argo," and not just in its photography. Some of Larrain's transitions from scene to scene are unduly abrupt, and he adds a coda to the film that dissipates the exciting triumph of the scenes just before it, though I understood why he included it.

Nevertheless, "No" is an admirable film. Its scrappiness deserves respect, as does its high-minded stand for democracy and plain dealing against tyranny and brutality.

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