Pablo Larraín’s ‘No’ Is A Terrifyingly Relevant Look At A Dictatorship And The Ad Campaign That Ended It

The film follows the 1988 referendum that ousted the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, but it might as well take place today in Trump’s America

Later this year, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín will make the jump to American cinema and American history with a Natalie Portman–helmed biopic of Jackie Kennedy. But before Larraín set his sights on the politics of the red, white, and blue, he made several films in Chile that took the circumstances of his own nation onto an international stage. The best of those was the 2012 election film No. No is a political film at heart, but Larraín bypasses the byzantine nature of policies and parties and legislature to focus on the group of activists and advertisers who crafted the marketing campaign that overturned a dictatorship. In short, No is a film about media strategy, and in the aftermath of a Trump election, it provides a clear-eyed look at how the balance of democracy and dictatorship can be decided by the strength of an ad campaign.

No plots the story behind the 1988 referendum that ousted the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. General Augusto Pinochet came to power in 1973, when he led a military coup funded and supported by the American government against the new socialist president Salvador Allende. Pinochet’s reign was marked by the murder of several thousand Chileans, as well as the internment and torture of tens of thousands more, but No enters the story after his dictatorship had become an entrenched — and therefore sustainable — part of life in Chile. For years, Pinochet had been allowing elections as a means to legitimize his dictatorship, always undertaken with the understanding that the socialist opposition was too weak to convince a majority of the population that they would be able to lead, and that the electorate was too terrified by the atrocities of the past to invest in hope for the future.

This culture of complacency and fear is the challenge facing Gael García Bernal’s ad executive René Saavedra at the start of No. The socialists have been running yearly campaigns for the “No” vote, continually losing as they choose to depressingly highlight footage of the atrocities once committed by the Pinochet government. From within a party resigned to losing nobly, Saavedra’s great intervention is to suggest that the opposition make a campaign that might actually win — and it’s the confounding nature of what constitutes a winning strategy that makes No so memorable. Where the losing ads were full of facts and substance, the ads that restored Chile’s democracy contain little more than whimsical dancers, robust loaves of freshly baked bread, and famous Chilean musicians and soap opera stars singing alongside everyday citizens. What makes No so fascinating is that it sets out to prove the substance of substancelessness, and it provides an all-too-rare glimpse at the way logic can act as a deterrent to the political advancement of morality.

This paradoxical law of illogical politics was painfully on display throughout this past week as the results of our own election shook the foundations of our now centuries-old democracy. For liberals and progressives, 2016 came as a slap in the face, not only because of the suggestions from polls and pundits that Hillary all but had it in the bag, but also because throughout Donald Trump's campaign, he showed a confounding lack of coherence to top off his already stunning displays of sexism and racism, which made the possibility of his election seem absolutely unimaginable. The lies that fueled Trump’s campaign were relentless and easily debunked, the “Make America Great Again” message he offered to his legions of devoted followers was devoid of any actionable policy, and the image he presented of himself was as a kind of postmodern nightmare of a reality show host let loose on reality itself. Again and again, liberal commentators and even the Hillary Clinton campaign appealed to the better logic of the American people, but what No anticipates is that logic is overrated as a rhetorical tool. Historically speaking, it’s our emotions that determine our votes, and the logic of emotionalism operates independently from the logic of hard facts. In No, it’s the liberal party that utilizes this power of illogical thinking, and in Chile, the result of that strategic non-strategy was a return to democracy. In America, the results of our own folly appear to be far less benevolent.

As those who resisted — and still resist — a Trump presidency look ahead to the next four years, there are already signs that the new president has no intention of backing away from the erraticism and falsehood of his election campaign. He has hired a white supremacist peddler of alt-right-pandering news as his chief strategist, he has attacked the New York Times with false accusations, he has theorized about bogus connections between the media and organizers. Even beyond Trump, looking at the cronies he has surrounded himself with, from Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich to his own children, there is a long history within United States politics of conservative politicians who use obfuscating arguments about economics or “law and order” to justify racist policies that have little basis in empirical reality. In a way, what faces the left now is the next evolution of political strategy. If the last generation of leftist thinkers was working to destabilize the logic used by dictators, how will the next generation reduce the impact of tyrants who have already discovered the power of instability?