In “No,” the new satire about the ad campaigns waged by both sides in the 1988 vote that led Augusto Pinochet to step down, the anti-Pinochet side faces a much more difficult task than expected. They thought their task was to convince the people that Pinochet was a dictator with blood on his hands. It turned out that people basically agreed with them on that part. They had the much tougher task of convincing people that it mattered. The elections will be rigged, the past is a foreign country, why bother?
“No” is immensely fun to watch, despite the grim subject matter. It looks just glorious: the filmmakers decided to make the whole movie look like we’re watching it on VHS, with fuzz on the images and moments of blurry color separation. This is an obvious “medium is the message” form-follows-function thing, but it also just looks really good. It makes the world of the movie cheaply-colored, like memories of the bad old days. It heightens our awareness of how any attempt to honor history inevitably warps it—and it also reminds us of how bright and poppy and cheesy and glam the pop culture of the 1980s really was. All those bouncy one-hit wonders about nuclear war.
“No” also gives us an unexpected hero to root for. Gael Garcia Bernal, as adman Rene Saavedra, is quite easy on the eyes. His storyline, in which he tries to reconcile with his dissident ex (the mother of his child), is an effective and poignant counterbalance to the movie’s overall optimism-always-wins arc.
The story of “No” is basically this: the Chilean constitution requires Pinochet to hold what amounts to a vote of no confidence, and if he loses, he’ll hold open elections. Each side (“yes” for more Pinochet/no elections, “no” for elections) will get a brief segment of advertising time each night. The No side leans on Saavedra to mastermind their campaign. He replaces their ads, which are heavy tributes to the tortured and the disappeared, with happy, funny scenes of jazzercise and mimes. He doesn’t want folk music, he doesn’t want sad solo dancing, he wants a jingle.
The outcome of this storyline we already know: Pinochet held the elections and stepped down in 1990. (For those who’d like to re-fight the Cold War, I note that this positive review of “No” comes from a guy significantly to my right.) But “No” manages to be thought-provoking, engaging, and even suspenseful.
There are lots of little touches: the signals that the Communist “brand” has already collapsed; the endorsement battles. (Pinochet is pictured with John Paul II and Jimmy Carter; the “No” side brings in Christopher Reeve and Jane Fonda.)
And there are at least two ways to read the movie. Does it show that traumatized or frightened people need hope more than anything else? They don’t need reminders of how bad things are, or how bad things have been. They need some sense that things could be different. I responded really strongly to this reading of the movie; it reminded me of everything from intra-pro-life battles about whether showing the gory results of abortions can save lives to my own experience quitting drinking, which was largely about coming to believe that it was possible.
But there’s another reading, in which “No” shows the triumph of consumer-culture glitz over a tragic or heroic sense of life. Superman saved Chile! I’d like to buy the dead a Coke! All of that is also in the movie and keeps it from getting syrupy.
This double meaning may help explain why the movie ends on an unexpectedly ambivalent note. We get about two minutes of Bernal doing some seriously manly, pensive skateboarding. The movie ends with a strong sense that the hard work is ahead and that even what has already been accomplished is somewhat ambiguous.