As a general rule, movies about electoral politics are so awful we should all be glad there are so few of them. Elections are wildly dramatic events, but the drama unfolds over a long time. Thus, naturally impatient moviemakers insist on stuffing them with transparently absurd melodramatics or ludicrous comic confrontations. The evildoers in these movies are invariably amoral political consultants who are out to corrupt the idealists. They are the serpents in Eden.
The reason political films are so bad is that this is a dreadfully uninteresting perspective, and it is a lie besides. Politics, like humanity, is infinitely shaded. But the movies abhor shading. That is what makes a new film called No such a triumph: It is the first movie about a political campaign worth seeing in forever.
No is the story of a hip, cynical advertising man who is recruited to help run a political campaign. He insists that the message be a positive one, which upsets the deeply principled people for whom he is working. They are outraged by events, and they want the advertising to be an expression of their outrage. He insists on using images and songs that convey a brainless optimism about the future.
They attack him. They accuse him of being pernicious, unserious. They are ideologues—fanatics, even—while he seems not to believe in much of anything. But he does believe in one thing these true believers do not: that they can win the election if the overall message is one of hope, cast in the form of a hyperactive Coke commercial. He is right and they are wrong. The anti-intellectual, anti-cerebral, and entirely cynical appeal to emotion is exactly what is needed to win. They are awash in loser’s rectitude; they need the cynic to achieve their idealistic aim.
No is a film from Chile, and its subject is the 1988 referendum called by Chile’s junta, the country’s first plebiscite since the 1970 election that led to the disastrous presidency of the Marxist Salvador Allende. The choice put before the public was simple: to say yes or no to a seven-year presidential term for the junta’s leader, General Augusto Pinochet, who had run the country since leading a coup against Allende in 1973. The Pinochet regime had been both brutal and wildly successful, trampling on human rights while at the same time adopting free-market policies that gave Chile the continent’s only boom economy in the 1980s.
The junta craved the legitimacy denied to it by its seizure of power—legitimacy that its economic success seemed to demand almost organically. The referendum came to be, in part, due to pressure from the Reagan administration, which had navigated a successful transition away from dictatorships in Central and South America—and in the Philippines—throughout the 1980s. As the movie begins, the ad man, played by the charismatic Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, is told by an old family friend (who is a leader of the coalition seeking to oust Pinochet) that the Americans are backing the “no” side. This is the first and last we hear of American involvement, but it is already enough to give No a surprising flavor.
The story is fictionalized, but the conflict that the movie portrays is very real. The “no” side is given 15 minutes of television time a night to make its case—the first time there will be a wholly uncensored television broadcast since the coup. The leaders of the “no” campaign want their efforts to focus solely on the evil that Pinochet’s regime has committed, and to preach a leftist message. They presume the election will be stolen in the end, so the only thing for them to do is to use the TV time to raise awareness (and propagandize).
Saavedra, our consultant, sees a possibility. The public does not share the coalition’s loathing of all things Pinochet. Things are undeniably getting better in Chile. Preaching a message of despair and gloom does not match the national mood. The trick is to harness the national optimism that should get Pinochet elected and, in effect, steal it from him.
How that happens is the meat of the movie, which is marvelously well-wrought by director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Pedro Peirano. Larraín made the risky decision to photograph the entire movie using video equipment from the 1980s, which gives viewers the feeling of looking at vintage clips from MTV on YouTube. It’s jarring, but effective.
No gets at the most devilishly interesting aspect of politics: how the views of the elite, which drive policy-making, must always share space with nakedly populist appeals to emotion of the sort that elites despise. It’s a smart and unusual and sophisticated film, and I loved every minute of it—even though that is a nakedly emotional response to a rather cerebral movie.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.