Happiness is revolutionary in ‘No’
Updated: April 8, 2013 6:42AM
It seemed a powerful statement back in 1970 when Gil Scott Heron sang “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” but now — sorry Mr. Heron — that seems fairly naive.
TV ads have been making and breaking political campaigns for quite awhile now, and it turns out they have been crucial to at least one bloodless revolution — as dramatized in this semi-fictional, semi-satirical account of media manipulation influencing the fate of a nation.
“No,” the last of a trilogy of films from director Pablo Larrain depicting life in Chile during the oppressive reign of dictator Augusto Pinochet, takes place in 1988 when international pressure led to a national referendum on whether or not he should remain in power. Apparently, Pinochet saw this as an opportunity to legitimize his position after taking over the government in a bloody, CIA-backed coup 15 years earlier. Naturally, it was assumed by many that the election was a sham, so the first challenge faced by the Pinochet regime was convincing the public it was worthwhile to vote.
Meanwhile, young, successful advertising exec Rene (Gael Garcia Bernal), the apolitical son of a dissident long ago exiled to Mexico, has been hired by an old family friend and leftist organizer (Luis Gnecco) to oversee the anti-Pinochet NO campaign, which has been granted a block of commercials each day on the state-run TV network.
And that’s where things get interesting.
Rene, who we first see pitching clients on a peppy campaign to sell a soft drink named “Free,” takes one look at the leftist ads, featuring grim footage of Pinochet’s many atrocities, and says, “This doesn’t sell.” He knows from experience that people respond best to positive, upbeat messages and he can’t see any reason why selling a political proposition is any different from selling a can of cola. The Pinochet camp (consulted by Rene’s conservative boss), has already taken freedom as its theme. So Rene responds by selling happiness. Literally.
Soon, much to the disgust of the hard-line leftists (many of whom have experienced Pinochet’s brutality first hand), Rene dreams up a logo with a big rainbow emerging from the word NO, and a campaign with the catch-phrase “Happiness is coming,” featuring a peppy jingle and a whole lot of commercials featuring happy, smiling people, peaceful bike rides in the country, a little sex appeal, and even the occasional mime.
Much of this is based on truth, though the character of Rene is a composite of several people and the film has been criticized in Chile for overemphasizing the importance of the ad campaign in deposing Pinochet. It certainly feels real, though, partially because Larrain includes much of the actual footage from the NO campaign and shoots the rest of his film with the same cheesy, grainy, late-‘80s video camera used to shoot TV programs at the time. As a result, it’s easy to feel immersed in the historical moment, though the distinction between fact and fiction is occasionally blurred, along with some of Larrain’s sharper satirical points.
In the end, very little seems to change, either in Rene’s life or in Chile, where life quickly resets to business as usual. Our hero is soon back to pitching campaigns to clients using the same smarmy images he used to sell his country on taking a chance for a better future.