No: The title says it all. In 1988, Chile held a simple up-down referendum on whether its neoliberal dictator, Augusto Pinochet, would continue in power for another eight years. In the month leading up to the plebiscite, Chilean television networks gave the two sides—”Yes” and “No”—fifteen minutes of nightly air time each to present their case. After more than a decade and a half of military rule everybody basically knows where they stand, meaning what’s up in the air isn’t so much how people will vote but whether people, especially those in the “No” camp, will go to the polls and how the two campaigns will convince them to cast their ballots. It turns out that articulating a two-letter word (and a three-letter one) is pretty difficult; there are a lot of things that the regime’s opponents have to say but no obvious way to contextualize their dissent in a manner that’s palatable to the public and encouraging and calming, rather than scary and intimidating, to voters. What I’d like to try and articulate are the reasons to say “Yes” to No: It’s a film that effectively places you in the moment and lets its story unfold naturally, subverting some historical drama conventions by refusing to artificially contrive tension (even if that’s what movies and TV commercials normally do) and by making a serious point through irony and creative thinking.
In search of a winning argument, the “No” team turns to René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), an ad man with the same assuredness in his artistic mind as Don Draper, but with deeper political involvement (he’s fathered a son with an open critic of Pinochet’s and has familial connections to the opposition) and less womanizing (so far as we know). When René hears what the campaign has in mind for its TV spots—video of military brutality and ominous voice-overs reminding the public of the staggering number of “disappeared” citizens and political prisoners—he balks. René’s background is in ginning up catch phrases for soda commercials, and he wants to apply the same strategy to the “No” campaign as he would to Pepsi: Make the product fun and attractive. Thus, a new jingle is born (“Chile, la alegría ya viene“) and René and his director film people dancing in the streets with a Walkman, a car’s windshield washers wagging back as if to say NO NO MUTOMBO, and an idyllic picnic in the countryside—all with pop music blaring—just as they would for any commercial, even though the baguette the picnickers are sharing has nothing to do with Chile. This strategy is blasphemy to his comrades, some of whom have experienced the regime’s torturous brutality firsthand. René’s response is that those who want to say “No” will stay home if they’re reminded of the terrors that might befall them if Pinochet remains in power; better instead to galvanize people to vote by happily idealizing what Chile could be. In essence, the fantasy, no matter how close they are to achieving it (the opposition isn’t entirely unified), is more exciting and certainly easier to sell than the frightening reality.
Apparently No has not been uncontroversial in Chile, where it was released last year (it was also nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar in February, losing to Amour), owing mostly to the belief that the film trivializes and makes light of what was at stake in 1988. Certainly the wounds of the past are still fresh in the country. Pinochet only died in 2006 and many of his supporters are still alive, and determining the level of blame to spread around, not to mention who deserves it, can’t be easy and probably isn’t the subject of too many humorous treatments. In my opinion, however, the film is quite cognizant of recent history and the tricky social interactions that can follow the replacement of a dictator that had substantial popular support; the film’s brief final scene, between René and his boss at the ad agency, who helped lead the “Yes” campaign, offers an assessment of Chilean society post-plebiscite. I can see where the final scene and the movie as a whole may not be as heavy-handed as some in Chile might want, but I think that’s kind of the point. If you’re as surprised and distressed by No‘s often lighthearted tone, then you’re in the same position as those who disagreed with René’s strategy.
Effectively, the film’s message is contained in that dichotomy: Sometimes you need a sense of humor to overcome oppression and accomplish something that’s weighty and serious. There are moments and venues to beat the drums, of course, but there are moments and venues that call for restraint, as anybody with a sanctimonious Facebook friend always posting about “the time to have a conversation on gun control” can tell you. What René and No champion is an avoidance of one-track thinking and a belief that some measure of political incorrectness and cheery ignorance is a whole lot more attractive than throwing your hands up in despair. It’s a good lesson that running jokes (a lot of René’s commercials feature a mime, for virtually no reason at all) are more catchy than dour and self-serious warnings, just like good marketing jingles.
Ironically, it’s because No has a sense of humor (and a strong sense of place) that it also is suspenseful. There are no manufactured climaxes like in Argo‘s last act. There’s some surveillance of René and his collaborators and some attempted censorship, but mostly there’s suspense and ultimately surprise that there’s less rigging, fixing, and violence by the government than the massive crackdown that you and the “No” characters were probably expecting when they embarked on their campaign. When the plebiscite’s results roll in, you know just as much as the characters do, and that’s more than sufficient without any music to clue you in on the importance of the moment or trumped-up election day commotion. That the film was shot using low definition cameras, as if you’re watching one of those grainy TV documentaries from the 80s, only reinforces your ability to identify with the characters. There’s plenty enough drama in the moment already, because you can imagine being in Santiago in 1988 and know what René, his family, and his colleagues have sacrificed and debated. They were seriously debating using comedy in their ad strategy, but the end result isn’t a commoditization of democratic ideals or a TV movie version of life. It’s proof that there’s plenty of room for irony in politics and a reminder that a little political incorrectness can be the most correct way to proceed.