There’s a delicious and thoroughly accidental irony of timing in Pablo Larrain’s superb and much-acclaimed film “No,” finally opening here Friday. This is a devilishly satiric and paradoxically suspenseful film about the ousting of terrorizing dictator Augusto Pinochet from the presidency of Chile to which he’d ascended in a military coup supported by the United States. Pinochet was the Reagan-era answer to the “horrors” of Salvador Allende, the first popularly elected socialist in the Western Hemisphere.
Not only, though, is the film’s opening mere days after the death of Margaret Thatcher, one of the strongest supporters anywhere of Pinochet’s reign of terror. It is also opening a scant five days after this season’s premiere of AMC’s hit TV show about the advertising business “Mad Men” after a yearlong layoff. You’ve got to love the timing.
Here, after all, is a devilishly clever and absorbing story about a recent time when the advertising industry – which we in the Northern Hemisphere routinely equate with consumer lying, social manipulation and exploitation – was used to help rescue an entire nation from the politics of tyranny.
Pinochet’s nightmare regime was so confident of the president’s popular support and the solidity of his military regime’s financial foundations that it made the ultimate mistake of hubris: In its foolish bravado it announced a plebiscite on whether Pinochet should continue as president with the full expectation that he’d be endorsed by a loving majority.
In the meantime, so rotten and terrible was the “beloved” general’s dictatorship that the opposition had a decent chance.
“No” in effect, then, is the tale of democracy’s very own advertising campaign.
And that is why we’re told the wickedly smart story of an extremely smart young ad man (Gael Garcia Bernal) – a man who claims that he speaks “advertising” fluently as a language – and his campaign to “sell” one word to the Chilean public: “No.”
How does an ad man prodigy get a clear-cut vote of “no” to oust a vicious dictator when all the sociopolitical force of money wants otherwise? How do you sell justice as if it were soda pop?
Even worse, how do you subvert the natural tendency to equate the word no with unhappiness, anger and all those downer emotions that we good respectable media consumers usually avoid at all costs?
And this is where “No” becomes wickedly and brilliantly satiric at times. Here, then, is a lot of “Mad Men” creativity used not to sell headphones, but a democratic nation.
Our ad man wunderkind who was so valued by his agency (which is officially on Pinochet’s side) has to come up with a campaign to connect the word “no” with everything that’s sweetness and light and wonderful in the world.
It’s brilliantly done.
And while all that is going on, the opposition is ham-handedly making TV commercial connections between the word “no” and sexual frigidity.
And while all this is going on there are very real complications of major import involving our prodigious ad man’s very modern and troubled family.
It should surprise no one that an entertainment as smart and cunning as this one can figure out brand new ways of being topical in the 21st century just about every month.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Alfredo Garcia
Director: Pablo Larrain
Running time: 118 minutes
Rating: Rated R for rough language.
The Lowdown: An ad man helps oust a Chilean dictator.