Behind even the cheeriest commercial— one that features monkeys, say, or Dikembe Mutombo—lies a rather serious, anxious group of ad execs with chewed nails and bottles of Xanax who have agonized over its every detail and are now waiting to see how it plays. So it goes in No, Pablo Larraín’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of a stage play about the 1988 Chilean campaign to prevent dictator Augusto Pinochet from claiming another eight years of power.
The film captures the then-new concept of turning to marketing tactics to bolster a political agenda. Gael García Bernal stars as René, a hotshot ad man we first see solemnly introducing a flashy, very ’80s commercial for a soda to his clients. Soon he’s recruited to be a consultant on Chile’s so-called “No” campaign, a cause he actually believes in. Each side is allotted 15 minutes of airtime a day; René, after being hired, squeezes stress grips as he watches what the “Yes” campaign is offering so far, which initially is the typical friendly-politician footage of Pinochet glad-handing and kissing babies. We get a glimpse of the opposition strategizing about new material, too: “I think we should take advantage of [Pinochet’s] blue eyes, his smile,” one man says. “I’d make him wear a pearl,” another offers.
Even in this era of debates over the color of presidential nominees’ ties, the discussion of the superficial presentation of a tyrant seems ridiculous. But the direction René eventually decides to take is perceived—by pretty much everyone, from his co-workers to his ex to probably Chileans themselves—as ridiculous, too. It can be summarized by one of René’s directives in a brainstorming session: “Let’s list things that are happy.” And thus the material that results isn’t terribly different than a soda ad—a rainbow in the logo, shots of people smiling and dancing, the slogan “Happiness is coming.” René’s former wife (Antonia Zegers) describes the images as “mentally five years old.” His team thinks he’s nuts. He’s soon harassed by threats and graffiti on his house and car.
Despite its historically accurate portrayal of a time of malaise and uncertainty, the film—which has been accused of oversimplification—is fairly breezy, with a telegraphed everything-is-going-to-work-out arc even with its occasional scenes of violence or the intimidation René faces. (The film is visually optimistic, too, with lots of sunshine-soaked shots.) Just as Ben Affleck successfully re-created the ’70s in Argo, Larraín takes every step to conjure the ’80s, most impressively by shooting the film using low-definition, Sony U-matic tape, the go-to recording material of the decade that here allows for seamless segues between new and archival footage. Cultural and stylistic details from the time period appear throughout, including era-appropriate cars and the novelty of the microwave—Bernal even sports a rat tail.
Bernal’s performance is serviceably understated, with his character rarely breaking a smile even though his campaign is all sunshine and lollipops. (And you may get misty seeing Christopher Reeve in a real-life PSA he appeared in; Larraín also includes ones with Jane Fonda and Richard Dreyfuss.) Though many viewers will already know the outcome of Chile’s Yes/No battle, the director manages to build tension, mostly through the hand-wringing of René and his colleagues. The stakes are high and this clearly isn’t Mad Men, even if the portrayal makes you feel that these marketers could benefit from a three-martini lunch.