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Movie Reviews

Say Yes To 'No': Retro Political Thriller Packs A Timely Punch

Originally published on Fri February 15, 2013 3:18 pm

In 1988, Chile's brutal military dictator, Augusto Pinochet, was facing international pressure to legitimize his regime. Confident that the opposition was splintered, and that state-run media could control the political dialogue, his administration agreed to a simple yes-or-no vote on extending his rule.

It was a vote that even Pinochet's opponents expected to go his way — but it didn't, for reasons made both compelling and instructive in Pablo Larrain's rousing Oscar-nominated drama, No.

The film centers on advertising hotshot Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), who agrees to consult on the opposition's "No" campaign, knowing full well that the deck is stacked against him. Years of suffering have left Chileans afraid to vote. And the state TV network, which pumps out Pinochet propaganda all day long, will give the opposition parties — collectively — just 15 minutes each evening to make their case, late at night when no one watches.

Still, that's more exposure than the activists have had for more than a decade, so Rene has agreed to look at what they're planning to run each night — grim, wrenching images of tanks and prisons, statistics on the dead and disappeared — and to give an opinion, based on his experience in the advertising game.

And that opinion is, "This won't sell."

Then he asks the opposition parties a question: Do they expect to win with this campaign? And the activists all start talking about speaking truth to power and the importance of saying what they've been banned from saying. But someone finally admits they do not expect to win. Not with people so afraid.

So Rene designs a campaign he thinks can win: a campaign with people smiling and singing about the happiness that will come from a "no" vote.

It looks and sounds like a soft-drink ad, complain the activists. But man, is it catchy, and appealing compared with the bombast of the "Yes" campaign's Pinochet propaganda — especially when the "Yes" campaign responds with scare tactics, depicting the "No" folks as lefty terrorists.

In short, the "Yes" campaign goes negative, as "No" wraps itself in affirmation and happiness.

Director Larrain, who wasn't even born when Pinochet came to power, re-created the TV studios and photo shoots of the "No" campaign, even using some of the same people. Then he meshed his new scenes with the actual ads from 1988, shooting the new footage with vintage video cameras from the 1980s so that audiences wouldn't be conscious of the juxtaposition. That means No has an old-school look — grainy and less sharp than what we're now used to.

But it also allows Larrain to plunk his stars into archival footage of huge election crowds and to turn what might otherwise have been an intimate, Mad Men-style advertising drama into an expansive political thriller. And it's a resonant one for American audiences today, given the tension between the bright, breezy tenor of the "No" campaign and the violence and brutality it was designed to overcome.

Think back a few months to the U.S. presidential campaign — attack ads filling the airwaves, each side accusing the other of misrepresentation, and the public grousing about being inundated with political messages. The contrast with the situation depicted in No could hardly be more striking: Chileans a quarter of a century ago, staying up late each night, grateful for 15 minutes of politics, and hopeful that what was arguably disingenuous political advertising would accomplish a great good. (Recommended)

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In 1988, Chile's military dictator, Augusto Pinochet wanted to legitimize his regime after 15 years of brutally suppressing dissent. He agreed to a simple yes or no vote on extending his rule, a vote even opponents expected to go his way. But it didn't, for reasons detailed in an Oscar-nominated thriller called "No." Critic Bob Mondello gives it a big yes.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: When advertising hotshot Rene Saavedra agrees to consult on the opposition's "No" campaign, he's aware that the deck is stacked against him. Years of suffering and the brutal dictatorship have left Chileans afraid to vote. The opposition is splintered and dysfunctional. And the state-run TV network that pumps out Pinochet's propaganda will give them just 15 minutes to make their case, late each night when no one watches.

Still, Rene, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, has agreed to look at what they're planning to run during that 15 minutes each night - grim, wrenching images of tanks and prisons, statistics on the dead and disappeared, and to give an opinion, based on his experience in the advertising game. And it is, "this won't sell."

And then he asks a question: Do they expect to win with this campaign? And the activists all start talking about speaking truth to power and the importance of saying what they've been banned from saying. But someone finally admits they do not expect to win, not with people so afraid. So Rene designs a campaign he thinks can win, a campaign with people smiling and singing about the happiness that will come from a "no" vote.

(SOUNDBITE FROM "NO")

MONDELLO: It looks and sounds like a soft-drink ad, complain the activists. But, man, is it catchy.

(SOUNDBITE OF "NO")

MONDELLO: Director Pablo Larrain, who wasn't even born when Pinochet came to power, re-created the TV studios and photo shoots of the "No" campaign, even using some of the same people and then meshed his new scenes with the actual ads from 1988. So that audiences wouldn't be conscious of the juxtaposition, he shot the new footage with vintage video cameras from the 1980s. That means "No" has an old-school look, grainy and less sharp than what we're now used to.

But it also allows Larrain to plunk his stars into archival footage of huge election crowds and to turn what might otherwise have been an intimate, "Mad Men"-style advertising drama into an expansive political thriller.

(SOUNDBITE FROM "NO")

MONDELLO: The tension between the bright, breezy tenor of the "No" campaign and the violence and brutality it was designed to overcome provides this film with a resonance you might not expect. Think back a few months to the U.S. presidential campaign, attack ads filling the airwaves, each side accusing the other of misrepresentation, and the public grousing about being inundated with political messages.

The contrast with the situation depicted in "No" could hardly be more striking. Chileans, a quarter of a century ago, staying up late each night, grateful for 15 minutes of politics and hopeful that what was arguably disingenuous political advertising would accomplish a great good. I'm Bob Mondello.

SIEGEL: And this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.