Monday, July 1, 2013

Ad Men: NO

Like Spielberg's Lincoln, the Chilean docudrama No is a procedural about political power. Set in the late 1980s, a time during which the country's ruling regime, after much international pressure, agreed to hold an election, the film follows an ad man (Gael García Bernal) who agrees to help run the opposition's television advertising campaign. Where Spielberg's film focuses on a 19th century American political hero going face to face winning over votes for his cause, No takes place in a time when mass media allows political persuasion to be taken to the entirety of a county's populace. By the 1980s, technologies have changed the nature of political argumentation. The election's rules allow for 15 minutes a day for 27 days of televised arguments for voting 'Yes," keeping Augusto Pinochet in power, or voting "No," and potentially toppling the military dictatorship. This will be a battle of persuasion not fought at gunpoint or in smoke-filled rooms, but out in the open on the screens of the nation’s television sets.

The ad man's idea for the "No" campaign boils down to selling not a political movement or dissent, but happiness and freedom. He creates vibrant, modern, fast-moving pieces filled with smiling faces, catchy songs, and good feelings that stand in stark contrast to the serious lectures and manufactured exaltations that are the pro-Pinochet advertising. The "No" spots look closer in spirit to the humor and music of the taped segments of Saturday Night Live or bouncy asides on Sesame Street in America at the time. My favorite bit in all the ads finds an off-screen voice asking a man "What would you say to a dictator?" The man thinks for a beat, and then sticks out his tongue, upon which is written "NO!" Also good is a scene in which a man begs a woman “Yes?” while she responds “No!” until he gives up and shouts “No!” too. They may be in bed, but they’re talking about voting. One socialist comrade grumpily says they look like "Coca-Cola ads." But, though it takes some convincing on the part of the ad men to let the campaign they envision go out over the airwaves, the ads eventually start to work. Powered by a hugely catchy jingle, the “No”s are gaining traction. Slowly, their efforts shift the conversation and the forces of the status quo feel the need to fight back.

No becomes a film of dueling campaigns that gets great humor and tension out of strategy meetings, shifting motivations, questioned allegiances, and disputed best advertising practices on both sides of the political conversation. It's a film of high-stakes meetings behind closed doors that then explode across the country on television screens, ads that are by turns exciting, hilarious and troubling. Director Pablo Larraín shoots the entirety of No in a square, washed-out, lo-fi style that accurately reflects the kind of video technology that would have been available at the time. This creates a sense of fly-on-the-wall verisimilitude, a convincing approximation of what we might've been able to see if there was a crew of documentarians around the principal figures. I found the visual style distracting at first, but was quickly swept up in the fast-moving tick-tock plotting, involved and invested. It grows only more gripping, picking up momentum and pressure as it goes along.

A talented cast of actors playing mostly men in suits with varying positions and points of view, but some select family members and friends as well, act out a vibrant screenplay by Pedro Peirano (from a play by Antonio Skármeta) which charges forward with a fine sense of purpose and drive. It delivers a sharp critique and celebration of media power in the political arena, both focused on its effectiveness. After all, the "Yes" campaign can spread a distortion as fast as the "No"s can agitate for hope. The film is bookended by scenes of Bernal doing his typical ad man job and everything in between shows him putting his skills to work for what comes to be seen as a higher purpose. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but here's a film that says TV is mightier than the machine gun.

1 comment:

  1. I did love the film's style and low-key humor. Some of the beats were very familiar, but you make a good point when you say Larrain squeezes an inordinate amount of tension out of advertising meetings. Nicely done.

    Check out my NO review: