Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Don Draper for the Revolution: No (2012)

Gael Garcia Bernal stars in No

Gael Garcia Bernal has the physical equipment of a young romantic lead and the skill and emotional depth of a real actor. In the Chilean film No, Bernal plays René, an ad man who has returned home after some time in exile (to Mexico) and become a success designing TV commercials for a soft drink called Free. It’s 1988, the fifteenth year of the Pinochet dictatorship, and the government, looking to finally achieve international respectability, has agreed to a national election meant to certify Pinochet’s legitimacy as president. A “yes” vote will translate into another eight years in office for the General; those who want him gone can vote “no.” The eyes of the world will be on the election, but the government assumes it won’t have to rig the results; even if enough people had the courage to vote against Pinochet, it’s taken on faith that after fifteen years of official propaganda, anyone who isn’t terrified of change will be indifferent to the possibility. But just to show that everything is on the up and up, for twenty-seven days, fifteen minutes of TV programming will be set aside, late in the evening, for the opposition party to make its case. As one of Pinochet’s men explains, the government will also have fifteen minutes every night, as well as every other minute of broadcast time leading up to the election. René, whose boss is working on the government’s nightly fifteen minutes, volunteers his services to the opposition.

René was exiled because his father was a political dissident, but to all appearances, he himself is a politically apathetic careerist. Certainly he’s no firebrand; that role belongs to his ex-wife (Antonia Zegers), a regular presence at street demonstrations who is constantly in and out of jail, and who looks at him with a mixture of disappointed affection and outright contempt. But René knows the difference between right and wrong, and when he looks at his son, he wants to be on the right side of history, so he steps up, knowing that if the election is all for nothing, there’ll be hell to pay. He goes to work on a campaign that, to a great degree, isn’t that different from his work selling soft drinks; it’s based on jokes and easy-to-read visual imagery, built around the idea that freedom from tyranny equals “happiness.” His contributions are perfectly designed to disgust the serious leftists he’s working for. (They certainly disgust his wife, who looks at his commercials and calls them “a copy of a copy.”) Like the government, the opposition leaders assume that the election is just for show. Their hope is that they can use this chance to speak harsh truths to anyone who’s listening and go down swinging. But René is really committed to winning, because he has no interest in being a martyr. In these special circumstances, it’s the shallow advertising salesman who gets the chance to play Quixote. (It may count as an inside joke that Bernal played the young Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries.) 
Gael García Bernal and Antonia Zegers in No
Bernal holds the film together, with relatively little in the way of dialogue or grand gestures. No is never more eloquent than when the camera is feasting on Bernal’s features, which manage to suggest Rene’s thoughts and feelings without ever implying that this ad man is some kind of secret rebel or poet: he’s a practical professional whose tools are smiling faces and young people dressed in bright colors spontaneously breakdancing. (Whenever he feels the need to show his “artistic” side, he throws in a mime.) Bernal never forces anything, and neither does the director, Pablo Larrain, whose best-known previous film, Tony Manero, was about a charmless sociopath living in Pinochet’s Chile. That movie’s protagonist left a string of dead bodies in his wake as he single-mindedly went about trying to make his TV debut doing an imitation of John Travolta’s dance moves in Saturday Night Live; the callous amorality of his country’s political culture was just the atmosphere in which he breathed. No, which was adapted by Pedro Periano from a play by Antonio Skarmeta, is basically an inspirational, go-for-it story, but the idea of using commercial images to bring down a tyrant who came to power through military force (including the murder of his democratically elected predecessor) gives it a satirical edge. Larrain hones that edge by including actual TV footage from the election, and he gives the whole thing a unified visual style by shooting with outdated, low-definition video cameras. Your eyes adjust to this after a whilethough whenever the characters walk through a patch of too-bright sunlight, it’s as if the theater has just been nukedbut the harsh look means that it’s that much more of a lucky break for both the audience and the filmmakers that Bernal is so easy on the eyes.

Like Ben Affleck’s Argo, No takes a good story and simplifies it for maximum entertainment value. And, like Argo, it’s brought out the historical purist in some critics, such as Genaro Arriagda, who actually directed the “NO” campaign, and who has complained that by focusing on the role that TV played in the 1988 election (and by cooking up “René,” a composite character), the movie slights the grassroots organizers who spearheaded voter registration drives and gives the credit for Pinochet’s ouster to “this Mexican advertising guy [who] arrives on his skateboard.” But if Larrain takes artistic license, at least he doesn’t pump the material up and jerk the audience around to generate suspense, the way Argo does in its climactic race-to-the-airport sequence. If anything, No may have more in common with another recent American movie, Lincoln; both are about how real political change is finally the work of people who know how to use the system and push people’s buttons, not the idealists too proud to get their hands dirtyor, in this case, willing to boil their complicated political message down to the right of smiling young people to breakdance in the street. It’s a smart crowd pleaser that doesn’t have any illusions about the intellectual integrity of the crowd. 

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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