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3/01/2013

Review: 'No', starring Gael Garcia Bernal


Chilean director Pablo Larrain has followed the reign of dictator General Augusto Pinochet from violent beginning to uplifting end with his "Pinochet Trilogy", carving out the definitive look at 15 years in Chile's political history. A nominee for this year's Best Foreign Language Oscar award, No is an incredible and prescient real life story of how a savvy ad campaign brought about real political change, without the need for violence and intimidation.

We've seen in a show like Mad Men just a surface taste of how advertising can work, but No really gets into the guts of the operation. Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene, a skillful and creative ad exec working in 1988 Chile during Pinochet's regime. When we first meet him, Rene is pushing his latest "big idea" to a room full of clients, claiming to have captured the fresh new style of Chile's youth. What he gives them is a generic ad for soda, packed with "hip" teens, rock music, and a mime. It's lame, and Rene knows it. He needs a real challenge, and he's about to get the biggest of his career.

The thing about Rene is that despite already having a failed marriage under his belt, he's still a youngster who rides his skateboard into work everyday. It puts him in a unique position where his age is both a boon and hindrance, and it turns out to be both when he's approached with an unusual new product to sell. The "product", pure and simple, is hope. Pinochet had taken power under violence, and now in the face of increasing opposition, he agreed to hold a plebiscite to determine if he should be given another 8-year term, or if a form of democracy would be instituted.

The "Yes" campaign for Pinochet, and the "No" opposition are each given 15 minutes a day of uncensored public TV time to make their case, and Rene reluctantly takes the job despite his colleagues thinking it a hopeless cause. In a prelude to our current bumper sticker mentality when it comes to politics, Rene smartly figures out that their time shouldn't be spent bashing Pinochet with negative ads. Instead, it should be about coming up with catchy themes that uplift rather than tear down. If that means coming up with a snazzy, hopeful jingle everyone can sing, then so be it. The truism "If you're explaining, you're losing" has never been more accurate.  Rene's shallow, easy-to-follow approach gives their underdog cause some serious bite.

Larrain lays out a compelling political procedural that isn't afraid to make fun of politics or the inherent silliness of using Coca-Cola ad techniques to sell something of real importance. The director goes to painstaking lengths to recreate the look of the period, superbly shooting the film in vintage U-matic video, giving the numerous commercial spots a grainy texture. The amount of actual footage he was able to cobble together is impressive, even grabbing old spots with Richard Dreyfuss, Jane Fonda, and more pushing for the "No" campaign.

If only the rest of the film was nearly as engrossing and inspired, but the surrounding stories don't do much to build Rene as a character. His pining over his ex-wife doesn't really amount to much, and the feud with his boss, who is working for Pinochet's side, also feels like a tacked-on subplot. It's Gael Garcia Bernal, who is in practically every scene, who gives the film its heart. His performance is something to behold, as we see Rene go from a paid operative doing a job, to realizing that he's the core of a grassroots movement capable of doing some amazing things. When he also figures out that certain powers may turn to violence to make sure he fails, his fear for his family is palpable.

No doesn't have much new to say, and it's a little thin outside of the core story, but it's an authentically presented look at a fascinating moment in world political history.