In 1988, Michael Jackson's Moonwalk biography was released, as was the baseball classic Bull Durham starring Susan Sarandon, and Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down by U.S. missiles. Pablo Larrain's masterful Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, NO, however, has chosen to concentrate on the Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet and his overthrow by an advertising executive, Rene Saavedra.
You see, after Pinochet and his thugs tortured and slaughtered several thousand of his citizens with the implicit approval of the United States and other international powers, the world at large developed a conscience of sorts and pressured the Chilean leader to hold a plebiscite on his presidency. The populace was to vote "YES" in support of Pinochet or "NO" to get rid of the tyrant. But how fair could such a referendum be? After all, Pinochet controlled the media and the streets.
Well, to be cordial, let's supply the opposition with 15 minutes of free air time daily for a month to make its argument. A quarter of an hour of late night TV? Will anyone stay up to watch these segments?
Now there's a challenge to puzzle over. How can the Nay-sayers make use of their free TV exposure to win over voters who might be afraid of change? Clearly not everyone was a fan of Pinochet's predecessor, Allende. Even his enemies will have to admit not everything Pinochet accomplished during his reign from 1973 to 1990 was heinous. He did lay the groundwork for Chile's modern market economy.
I know. We'll hire Saavedra to design a campaign that sidesteps Pinochet's atrocities -- and we'll package human rights like Coke packages their soft drinks USA-style. We'll compose a catchy jingle, show attractive folks singing, dancing, and picnicking, and then design a logo with a rainbow. We'll make democracy seem like fun.
But can such a campaign be triumphant? Saavedra, who at the same time is trying to popularize a new contraption called the "microwave oven," insists such tactics will win the battle. Of course, a few cameos in the ads with such stars as Jane Fonda, Christopher Reeve, and Richard Dreyfus won't hurt either.
Well, if you know your history, you know the end result. But as with Argo, you will be on the edge of your seats nonetheless. This has much do with Larrain's superb direction, Pedro Peirano's canny adaptation of Antonio Skarmeta's play The Referendum, and Sergio Armstrong's astute cinematography that reproduces the cinematic look of the time, thus allowing actual footage to be seamlessly intercut into the final "product." But the conflicted Saavedra as portrayed by Gael Garcia Bernal carries the entire enterprise on his shoulders. As the skateboarding father of a young boy, as the abandoned husband of an activist, as a top adman who knows shallow sells, his Saavedra suddenly finds himself in a politically menacing world that might at any moment topple the world he's so cleverly built with one trite soap opera ad campaign after another. His battle and his triumph makes NO the first great film of 2013, and Bernal's performance the one that will be the hardest to outshine.