Dir. Pablo Larrain
(2013, R, 118 minutes)

No is an interesting companion to Lincoln in how it shows cynical strategies employed to achieve a righteous goal. Steven Spielberg‘s historical biopic didn’t show our 16th president appealing to lawmakers’ morality, but instead making furtive deals that appealed to their self-interest. It was not the better nature of politicians that ended slavery, but a willingness to compromise procedural ethics for a greater moral purpose. Lincoln won because he played the game.

No is also based on a true story. It takes place in 1988, when international pressure forced Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to submit to a public referendum. Should he remain in power: “Yes” or “No”? The referendum was widely thought to be a sham, even by Pinochet’s advisers, who expected to win through the same system of corruption and intimidation they’d relied on throughout his regime. Forced to give up a scant 15 minutes per day of television airtime to the opposition, they anticipated a disorganized plea to voters’ outrage. What they didn’t expect was nonthreatening charm.

Gael Garcia Bernal stars as René Saavedra, who at first seems mostly apolitical despite being the son of radicals. René works in advertising, and when he grudgingly agrees to advise the “No” campaign, he realizes right away that the key to victory is not righteous screeds and polemics, but the same bright colors and cheery jingles of soft drink commercials; getting people to buy into freedom from oppression, it turns out, is not so very different from getting them to buy Diet Coke.

The film is directed by Pablo Larrain using a 1983 U-matic video camera to match the original 1988 footage, which from a modern perspective looks kind of like an old VHS instructional video found in the back of someone’s attic. I’m not sure this approach is altogether necessary – the visual distraction sometimes supersedes the sense of period accuracy – but after growing accustomed to it I found the film’s story and themes no less compelling. This is an effective study of the political clash between meaningful messages and superficial packaging.

Just from observing the modern political discourse, it’s clear that marketing has long since outpaced the honest exchange of ideas. Arguments appealing to reason have lost the floor to sound bytes, catchphrases, and memes. The ending of the film feels unexpectedly ambivalent, perhaps reflecting the unresolved problem: is winning the right battle more important than winning it the right way?