In the late 1980s, one of the great Western liberal causes was Chile, and the sclerotic, violent dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Sting sang "They Dance Alone" and U2 recorded "Mothers of the Disappeared," both songs inspired by the grieving women dancing at Santiago's Plaza de Mayo. Outspoken liberal actors like Jane Fonda, Christopher Reeve and Richard Dreyfuss professed their support for the Chileans as they tried to shake off 15 years of repression since Salvador Allende, an elected leftist, was overthrown in a 1973 coup, with the complicity of the United States.
As dramatized in the Oscar-nominated Chilean film NO, in 1988 Pinochet, under increasing international pressure to demonstrate his democratic legitimacy, agrees to a popular plebiscite. Under its terms, voters would vote "yes" to keep him or "no" to reject him. In the weeks before the election, both sides were given 15 minutes a day to broadcast their arguments. A young ad director, René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), is recruited to develop the message of the "no" faction (a coalition of all the opposition parties). From the outset, the challenge is obvious: Advertising is about getting people to say "yes," so how do you sell people on the word "no"?
What follows is a fascinating study of process—a Latin Mad Men without the sex, sexism and booze—as Saavedra and his team try to tease out a message. Over considerable objections raised by leftist ideologues, Saavedra rejects the initial strategy—moral appeals regarding the killings and disappearances and torture—in favor of the happy images and earworm jingles of modern advertising. The ads created by the "yes" faction become more creative in response to the effectiveness of the "no" campaign, and an entertaining nightly duel of propaganda ensues.
This film, directed by Pablo Larraín from an unproduced play by Antonio Skármeta, also pursues a radical aesthetic strategy: In a rebuke to modern HD video, cinematographer Sergio Armstrong shot much of the film with a vintage video camera—a 1983 U-Matic, to be precise. The result is something like an early Dogme film, with fuzzy detail, muddy colors and blown-out highlights. It makes one appreciate the art direction even more—the impeccably chosen puffy, acid-washed denim jackets, for example, are cringe-worthy. More importantly, it allows the filmmakers to weave in archival news footage without us being taken out of the story.
I'm less persuaded by García Bernal's performance as Saavedra. The script keeps underlining that he's an apolitical ad guy, with all of the skills at ruthlessly exploiting human psychology and weakness that the job entails. But the Mexican actor seems too earnest, with little of the cynicism or pragmatism of, well, Don Draper. García Bernal's presence is that of a global humanitarian, something like a present-day version of Bono or Sting. But I shouldn't complain—surely García Bernal's involvement helped get this film made, and I do love the footage of him skateboarding through Santiago, with his loose jeans rolled up at the ankles and a rat tail peeking over his collar. Little glimpses of the 1980s can go a long way.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dreams and jingles."