Thursday, September 18, 2014

No (2012) **1/2

As rare as democracy is in human history, it is even more rare when it is achieved peacefully.  Tyrants are loathe to give up their power, and even in places that hold nominal elections, the rule tends to be that the party in power cheats in order to stay in power.  This is why it was such a miracle of history when George Washington handed over the Presidency to John Adams, and why it is still a miracle each time a political party wrests the reigns of government from its opposition through the peaceful means of an election.

Former Chilean President Pinochet never had any intention of giving up his hold on power, but he and his junta did eventually craft a constitution that created the illusion of democracy and rule of law.  Under it, the junta would nominate a candidate for President, and the people would simply vote “Si” or “No.” The nomination, of course, went to Pinochet, so in 1988, the Chilean people were allowed to vote on the question of whether he should remain in power.  With control of the polls and the media, Pinochet and his government clearly held the advantage, but they did grant the opposition a 15 minute television spot each night to make their case for the “No” vote.  Surprisingly, the “No” ticket prevailed, and Pinochet, with the world watching, was forced to gradually hand over power to a democratically elected leader.

The Oscar-nominated, Spanish-language film “No” is a fictionalized account of the advertising campaign that helped make that result possible.  Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene, an advertising guy whose work experience involves selling soda.  As the leaders of the “No” campaign prepare to focus on the torture, disappearances, and other abuses of the Pinochet regime, Rene convinces them to try a more optimistic, marketing-based approach.  People will be turned off by all the negative imagery, he tells them, so you have to give them a catchy jingle, positive images, and promote the idea that voting “No” is really voting “Yes” to a better Chile.

Like all historical movies, and perhaps more than many, “No” sacrifices authenticity and complexity in the name of narrative.  Rene Saavedra never existed.  He probably represents an amalgam of the marketing whizzes who created the “No” campaign. The film also oversimplifies the election, crediting the victory to the slick ad campaign, while downplaying the nationwide grassroots efforts that also played a role.

 My complaint about films based on historical events and people is that the power of the story comes from the idea that it actually happened.  The more we become aware that artistic license has been taken to make the narrative better, the less power the story has.  For viewers who aren’t aware of the oversimplifications, the situation is even worse, because they come away from the movie thinking they have just seen history.  That is not only unjust, but dangerous, as people may be trained by such entertainment to view the world through a simplistic, black-and-white filter.

Filmmakers aren’t about to stop, however.  History is full of too many compelling stories.  As movies based on history go, “No” is just alright.  The characters are underdeveloped, and the story feels small compared to the events on which it is based.  I can’t help thinking that the Oscar nomination was more about the subject matter than the quality of the film itself.

2.5 stars out of 5

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