Driven by the wishful thinking that the political Zeitgeist is moving in their direction, pundits on the right sometimes project their own ideological leanings onto new movies or television shows, celebrating their supposedly libertarian or conservative orientation. They seem to believe, notwithstanding a director’s stated liberal views, deep inside he or she is actually a believer in the power of free markets or traditional cultural values.
Hence, while I enjoyed seeing “Avatar” in 3D, I found it difficult to buy into the notion promoted by some libertarians that the film provided a powerful defense of property rights. What I saw was what the director intended the movie to be, I think: a fierce attack on corporate power and a salute to third world indigenous politics with a strong anti-Western bias.
So I will refrain from labeling the new Chilean movie “No” a libertarian masterpiece or implying that its director, Pablo Larrain, is a secret fan of Friedrich Hayek. But then, the main protagonist in this film is an advertising executive who unlike his counterparts in “Mad Men” is portrayed as an agent of progress, one who not only wins a battle against a bunch of aging Marxists but who also leads a marketing campaign—celebrating individual freedom and the joys of consumer society—that helps topple a military dictator and give birth to a thriving liberal-democracy. So if Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have loved “Avatar,” my guess is that Milton Friedman would have probably enjoyed “No.”
“No” is one of those docudramas that, not unlike “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Argo,” and “Lincoln,” was “inspired” by real events, which means it combines truth with fiction. In this case, the truth is the national plebiscite that took place in Chile in 1988, in which voters were asked to decide whether military dictator Augusto Pinochet should stay in power for another eight years (a “Yes” vote) or whether there should be an open presidential election a year later (the result of a “No” vote).
It is also true that a marketing team employed by the anti-Pinochet coalition produced commercials to encourage the Chileans to vote “No” and that the ads ran during the 27 days of the campaign in which each side had 15 minutes to present their position nightly on state-run television.
But “Rene Saavedra,” the character of the advertising executive in the film, played by Gael Garcia Bernal (who starred as a young Che Guevara in “The Motorcyle Diaries“) is a composite of members of the pro-“No” advertising group. Which means that his personal story is fiction, although the director’s decision to shoot the film on low-definition tape used by television news crews in Chile in the 1980s creates a sense that we are watching a documentary from that era.
The apolitical Saavedra works for an ad agency making commercials for Chilean soap operas and Coca-Cola, raising a son on his own. When his left-leaning activist wife gets beaten up by police during anti-government demonstrations, Saavedra is approached by a member of the opposition who asks him to help run their campaign.
He reluctantly agrees but finds himself confronting strong opposition from the hard-line leftists who dominate the opposition forces, including his wife, when he proposes that the “No” campaign should be run in the same way he sells, well, soap operas and Coca-Cola.
What the Communist activists have in mind is old-style political propaganda, while Rene insists on launching a campaign that embraces the symbols and images of American pop culture and consumerism, or what Rene refers to again and again as “happiness,” the notion that freedom is synonymous with choosing your political representative as well as your consumer products, an idea contrary to the values of both the military dictatorship and the Marxist politicians.
The irony is that after launching an advertising campaign that promotes nationalist and militaristic themes a la fascist Italy, the marketing team of the pro-“Yes” faction—headed up by Rene’s former boss at the advertising agency—decides to incorporate “happiness” too, injecting humor and jazzy music into their campaign. But it’s very difficult to sell an old and brutal general as a pop-culture symbol; if anything, that kind of strategy only helps to demonstrate that the values of political and economic freedom, youth and optimism, are not compatible with those of a military dictatorship. There is nothing cool about death squads.
While the film doesn’t dwell too much on the political background of the Pinochet era, it did remind me of the debate taking place in Washington at the time, and in particular the thesis promoted by former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. who in her “Dictatorships and Double Standards” essay lashed liberals who idolized Communist figures in Latin America (like Cuba’s Fidel Castro) even as they urged the U.S. to isolate and punish authoritarian right-wing figures like Pinochet. She argued that a form of constructive engagement with the Pinochets of Latin America could prove more effective in driving them from power.
And indeed, the free-market reforms Pinochet and his American-trained economic advisors (some of them taught by Friedman) had initiated helped create the foundations of an America-style consumer society where advertising agencies and the “happiness” values they promoted could flourish, a political-economic environment in which the pressure for liberalization was relentless and eventually forced Pinochet into retirement.
That, unlike Pinochet, the Castro family has not allowed Cubans to vote “No” may be a reflection of the totalitarian nature of Communism. But one wonders whether U.S. diplomatic engagement with Cuba and its bombardment by American businesses would not help propel economic and political change there, too.
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and foreign policy analyst, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.