By Matt Zoller Seitz | Press Play February 4, 2013 at 9:30AM
The Chilean film No, written and directed by Pablo Larraín, is up for a foreign film Oscar this year. I hope it wins, if only to bring attention to an extraordinary film by an increasingly sophisticated director. We've seen a lot of films about the interplay of politics and advertising (starting with 1972's The Candidate) and maybe more films that interweave drama and documentary elements, so that it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. No is both of these kinds of films rolled into one, but with a very specific political focus, a unique energy, and an inscrutable core that makes it linger in the mind.
An adaptation of the play El Plebiscito, written by Antonio Skármeta, No is set in 1988. The country is less than a month away from national plebiscite (referendum) to determine whether military dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet will continue to rule Chile, as he has since displacing Allende in a 1973 coup, or if the country will transition to democracy. The vote is a simple "Yes" or "No." The opposing sides are each given 15 minutes of national TV time each night to make their cases, spread out over 27 days. Ad man René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) is the head of a team creating content to sell the "No" option. He has the bright idea to ignore or downplay the country's recent history of murder, torture, disappearances, and other political skullduggery, instead fashioning a campaign that sells an abstract notion of democracy synonymous with happiness or faith in the future; his version of this campaign is indistinguishable from an ad we see him creating at the start of the film for a brand of cola. The guy knows how to sell, and this time he's selling democracy. Democracy as promise. Democracy as product.
Because Saavedra is the son of a reviled Pinochet foe and has spent many years outside of Chile, he doesn't have the direct experience of trauma that many of his colleagues have; he's also a bit of a man-boy dreamer character, quiet and opaque and emotionally arrested. This turns out to be a huge benefit, though, because it enables him to talk down others who insist that the "No" contingent's airtime should be filled with direct engagement—with political and history lessons, for instance, or a segment in which the mothers of the "disappeared" talk about their experiences, or an interview with an official who's an expert on the regime's thug tactics, and so forth. Anything smacking of reality, or reminding people too keenly of the pain the country has suffered, might have backfired. This aspect of the movie reminds me, oddly, of Spielberg's Lincoln, which is partly about the necessity of downplaying or even compromising one's own moral fervor in order to make progress for one's cause—to win a battle rather than lose a war. This movie shows the effect of advertising on the viewer very pragmatically, touching emotions and creating needs that weren't there before, and appealing to dreams and fantasies. Mad Men fans will appreciate the aesthetic strategy sessions (Don Draper's line about how romance was invented so guys like him could sell nylons popped into my head more than once), and the very direct, often painful scenes in which people recounted personal experience with political terror reminded me of scenes from certain Ken Loach films, where the film puts the brakes on the plot and lets characters work through philosophical and moral positions in all their messiness.
I really love this movie. I recommend it to students of advertising, social revolution and film form. Larraín—who has directed two other films about 70s-80s Chilean political history, and was just 12 when the plebiscite took place—has Oliver Stone's facility for mixing documentary footage with docudrama re-creations (the entire movie was shot with 1980s TV news equipment) and Steven Spielberg's somewhat mysterious, at times unnerving sunniness. It's a warm film with a rather cool question mark of a man at its center. Saavedra doesn't seem terribly happy, or even particularly satisfied, unless he's working or playing with his 12-year old son, one of two people who seem to really matter to him. The other such person is his estranged wife Verónica (Antonia Zegers), a political activist first seen getting the crap kicked out of her by riot cops. There's a hint that Saavedra is dedicated to the "No" campaign partly because he wants to win back his wife's love—at times his affection for her resembles that of a little boy toward his mother, a notion furthered in a wonderful moment where she goes to embrace her son, who's sleeping on his father's shoulder, and the shot is framed so that her terms of endearment seem to be directed toward Saavedra. But the movie never boldfaces any of this; it's just a tantalizing hint of a character explanation, like the repeated shots of the hero blissfully riding a skateboard through the city, and the shots of him working on commercial campaigns (including a James Bond-like ad for a soap opera) that seem to be of nearly equal importance to him. Maybe he just loves a challenge? Maybe he's just obsessed with whatever's next? We don't know, and it's better that we don't know.
Certain moments and shots seemed very Spielbergian to me, particularly the backlit, often blown-out shots of the hero wreathed in a nimbus of sunlight (like some sort of holy fool) and the repeated images of the hero playing with his son's electric train set (Close Encounters). One of the latter scenes leads to a wonderful, knowing joke: Saavedra lies down on the floor of the playroom with the back of his head held just above a length of track, and the approaching toy train seems to go into one of his ears and out the other! It's as if the movie is saying, "Only such an arrested adult could have come up with exactly the solution that was needed during this incredibly difficult historical moment." Or to quote an "old Vulcan proverb" from one of the Star Trek films, "Only Nixon could go to China."
Is the movie saying that had the "No" campaign had been any more mature, Pinochet might have ruled for much longer? I think so. The movie doesn't adopt a morally superior position toward this, however, or endorse it; it just raises as more of a hint of a theory than a critique and then lets it hang there, nagging at you and prompting reflection. The notion that advertising is an essentially sub-rational, in some ways sinister industry isn't new, nor is the idea that certain political outcomes can be achieved by appealing to fantasies that might or might not have anything to do with the pressing matters at hand. But somehow No puts them together, along with some very subtle and sophisticated integrations of documentary reality and drama, in a way that both entertains and provokes. This is the movie I kept hoping Argo would turn into, honestly. Not that Argo isn't a good movie -- it is! -- but it lacks the nerve or intelligence to really delve into the fantasy/reality matrix that its story quite naturally creates. No says yes to doing that, and is the richer for it.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.