Opens Fri., March 29 at Guild 45th. Rated R. 110 minutes.
Mad Men for a different era, No is basically the true story of two rival 1988 ad campaigns—one for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the other for “happiness,” according to René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), the advertising hotshot with a very difficult client. René, the adult child of leftists, was once exiled with his family (presumably after the CIA-sponsored ouster and killing of Salvador Allende in 1973). Now he’s back, separated from his red-leaning wife, fully embracing the bourgeois dream: He’s got a house at the beach, a French sports car, and Atari video games for his young son. He knows how to sell microwave ovens, and microwave ovens are the future. His boss Lucho (Alfredo Castro) will likely soon make him a partner. Why would René want to give up any of that?
Outside Chile, international pressure has prompted Pinochet to offer a national referendum on his rule. After a 27-day TV blitz, voters can vote either Sí (thus keeping Pinochet) or No (bringing in a new coalition government). René and Lucho consider it a rigged contest, yet René is lured into running the No campaign—perhaps less out of ideology than his simple desire “to win,” as he puts it. (Lucho will later lead the Sí campaign.)
All this is true in outline, but director Pablo Larraín and his writers embellish history and devise a funny, effective series of fake ads and jingles for both campaigns. Previewing one grim TV spot, a parade of riot cops and statistics on the disappeared (leftists abducted and killed by Pinochet’s secret police), René curtly declares, “This doesn’t sell.” What sells? The future, not the past. Hope and optimism. Microwaves and happy families . . . wait, that’s it! René decides to redefine No in the affirmative: No to Pinochet and civil war, yes to happiness. “We have to find a product that is attractive,” says René. Product: That’s the key word, in which sense René can be seen as the Roger Ailes of his day, a guy who packages ideology irresistibly. His ads show picnicking families, spontaneous dancing in the streets, golden beaches, and smiling faces. Those who remember our Reaganite ’80s will recognize the same sunny spirit; No cleverly inverts that era’s hemispheric politics.
No is the third film Larraín has set in the Pinochet era. (Tony Manero and Post Mortem both starred Castro.) It’s also by far the most cheerful and affirmative, in part because we know the script: Pinochet will be humiliated and cede most of his power (though keeping the military), and everyone gets a microwave oven. Good will triumph over evil. As a result, each roadblock and creative breakthrough for René feels more than a little rote and illustrative. Are these the original ads we’re watching, or lovingly recreated ’80s facsimiles? (Larraín, born in 1976, clearly remembers that decade’s tastes and textures well; he’s also worked in advertising.) A straight documentary would leave no such doubts.
Still, you’re left with the enjoyable dissonance between messenger and message in No. When a riot breaks out near a political rally for his side, with Molotov cocktails, tear gas, and a water cannon deployed, René’s first thought is his beloved Renault Fuego Turbo parked in the melee. “Fuck, my car!” he indignantly yelps. Never mind politics. Once the referendum is over, he’ll have soap operas and appliances to sell.
What’s that old saying? The revolution will be advertised.