Advertising has the gloriously horrible power to form habits, shape trends and change the world. But usually it’s a small change, so at worst you might end up with a new hat you don’t really need, or a Crunchie just because it’s a Friday.
But in 1988, a 15 minute daily ad slot was used by a small team of creatives to build up public support for the campaign to kick Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet out of power. NO is an Oscar-nominated film which charts these improbable but true events, turning the heartless manipulation of marketing to a noble cause and forcing ad execs to shed their douchery in the process.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, an ambitious and successful young Mad Man who agrees to manage the NO campaign, working with a shoestring budget and a small crew to craft an image of Chile without Pinochet that makes voting against him seem hip and attractive as well as politically progressive.
He has to compete directly with the Yes campaign, as well as being aware that the whole election could be rigged and his family life destroyed should he become a political prisoner for his subjectively seditious actions.
The film steps delicately around Saavedra’s home life, hinting at the love he feels for his son and the painful relationship he shares with his estranged wife, but never delving too deep or letting personal matters get in the way of the broader themes of the narrative. The audience is also not forced to completely embrace the protagonist, who is portrayed as being arrogant and overly Americanised following a period of exile. He earns empathy slowly and does not suffer from glorification by default.
NO was shot on old-school tapes, not film or digital devices, giving it an authentic look that allows for seamless transition between scripted scenes and clips from the archives. It’s a stylistic choice that makes the movie beautiful and inherently nostalgic, like the ads it emulates. For the kids who don’t remember what it was like to watch things from a VHS, it’s as if the whole thing has been put through Instagram.
Incredibly naturalist acting adds to this realism and the subdued nature of the performances contrasts perfectly with the exaggerated energy of the ad campaigns. NO locks in for a little under two hours and turns cynical marketing ploys into valuable instruments of social and political upheaval, without the need for bloodshed. Even if Chilean politics isn’t your strong suit, it’s a compelling piece of art cinema.