NO & The Company You KeepApril 20, 2013
In old episodes of Get Smart, it was not uncommon for Secret Agent 86 to wish that some villain had used his powers “for niceness instead of evil”. No is the movie that applies this wishful thought to the advertising industry.
It is 1988, in Chile. The military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet has been in power for 15 years, after toppling the democratically elected government of Socialist President, Salvador Allende. During that time Chile has become a police state, with tens of thousands of political prisoners. Dissent has been punished by torture, exile or death.
As a result of international pressure, a plebiscite is to be held in which the people of Chile are being asked to decide whether they want the aging Pinochet as Head of State for another eight years. The vote will be a simple matter of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It is agreed that each side will have 15 minutes of television every night for a month to put their case. For Chileans, accustomed to the ways of the junta, it is widely believed the vote will be rigged in favour of Pinochet. The plebiscite is viewed as a charade to appease an overseas audience.
This is also the view of Rene Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), a young advertising agency executive, who is asked by a radical friend to take charge of the No campaign. Rene is cynical about the referendum, cautious about endangering his career, and wary of the dangers to himself and his family. Yet when his boss, Guzman (Alfredo Castro), links up with the ‘Yes’ campaign, Rene is perversely drawn to the opposing camp.
At a first meeting with the supporters of the No vote, he realises their ideas are completely misguided. Instead of droning on about the brutality of the regime, its crimes and injustices, Rene suggests they try a positive approach, selling the idea of freedom as if it were an exciting new consumer product. This means happy smiling faces, laughter and even a catchy jingle.
To the veterans of the opposition this is an insult to the memory of those who have been imprisoned and murdered. It is grotesque, unthinkable. Yet little by little the ad men have their way, and the campaign gathers momentum, instilling confidence in a demoralised population.
As the No movement gathers strength, the government uses intimidatory tactics and dirty tricks to hold it in check. This is alarming for Rene, who is no hero. He is concerned for his own skin, and for the safety of his young son. In one scene he watches his estranged wife get bashed by a policeman, and makes no attempt to intervene. Although his father was a radical, Rene is happy to be a part of the new capitalism the Pinochet regime has created, under the influence of the Chicago school of economics.
Rene is a cool guy who travels to work by skate board. While handling the No campaign, he also works on an account for a new innovation, the microwave oven.
Although this is a fictionalised account that brushes over many of the events of the campaign, it often feels as if we are watching a documentary. Director, Pablo Larraín, has taken the search for verisimilitude so far as to shoot the entire movie on a couple of vintage Sony video cameras. This gives the picture a grainy, washed-out quality that will irritate some viewers in its impersonation of an historical document.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the campaign is the use of advertising strategies to effect political change. Chile was not the first place to do this. Think, for instance, of the Saatchi & Saatchi campaign of 1979, with its slogan, Labour Isn’t Working, which brought the late, partially lamented Margaret Thatcher to power.
Ironically, Mrs Thatcher was one of General Pinochet’s most fervent admirers. She credited him for an “economic miracle”, while ignoring his record on human rights.
The No campaign, as outlined in this film, fits the criteria put forward by David Oglivy, the grandmeister of American advertising, for an advertisement… “which sells the product without drawing attention to itself. It should rivet the reader’s attention on the product. Instead of saying, ‘What a clever advertisement,’ the reader says, ‘I never knew that before. I must try this product.’”
The product was democracy, which might seem an easy sell alongside another eight years of military rule, but fear, cynicism and self-interest motivated a large part of the population to side with the generals. Rene’s campaign is effective in the way it makes Pinochet seem unbearably old-fashioned and paternalistic. Rather than a feared strongman, he is portrayed as an embarrassing anachronism. The real ads we see in the film are hilarious period pieces, but they sent a message that was in tune with the times.
The message of happiness Rene peddles may have been no less illusory than Pinochet’s promises of peace and prosperity, but it lifted the spirits of Chileans who hungered for an end to the oppressiveness and paranoia that had infected their lives. At the end of the film we are no closer to knowing whether advertising is an art of persuasion or a science of human behaviour, but we can see that it has a power to effect change the most celebrated revolutionaries could only envy.
Robert Redford takes a retrospective glance at revolutionary politics in The Company You Keep, a thriller that dispenses with all the standard trappings of the genre. There are no car chases, no martial arts contests, no massacres, no explosions – and no smartarse one-liners delivered after a hair’s breadth escape from catastrophe.
You may think this sounds a little dull and that’s a fair suspicion. This movie, in which Redford is both star and director, has an earnestness which has become a personal trademark. Redford has directed nine films since 1980, and many of them feel like seminars. Although much of the story is based around the FBI’s pursuit of a fugitive, one should not be surprised to find a bundle of moral issues lurking on the sidelines.
It might be argued that the action clichés would be out-of-place when the fugitive is 76 years old. Although Redford is well-preserved, it’s hard to imagine him taking on a team of thugs with his kung fu skills. The Company You Keep is all about the sins of the past coming back to haunt us, many years after they might have been forgotten. It asks unanswerable questions as to whether we remain the same people from youth to old age, or change irrevocably.
The starting point is a homegrown terrorist act of the early 1970s, by the Weathermen, or the Weather Underground, a group of US radicals opposed to the Vietnam War. Frustrated by the failures of the protest movement and the violent responses of the government, the Weathermen turned to terrorist acts such as bombings and robberies. One such act was a bank heist that went wrong, resulting in the death of a security guard. The gunman was captured, and would die in custody. His three companions have remained on the run for more than 30 years.
The film begins with one of the group, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) being arrested in the heart of suburbia. Now a housewife with two children, she greets the arrest as a relief to a tortured conscience. Her old comrade, Nick Sloan, who now lives under the name, Jim Grant, is less amenable. Nick is a widower with a young daughter. He has spent decades working as a small-town lawyer. When his cover is blown by Ben Shepherd (Shia LaBoeuf), a crusading young reporter for the local newspaper, he sets out on a cross-country journey to clear his name. On the way he links up with a network of former radicals that lies dormant in the midst of middle-class America.
In between escapes from the FBI, Nick and his friends discuss the old days – their dreams and aspirations, and how they ended up. Only Nick’s former girlfriend, Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), wants to keep the flame alive. This extended reflection on the way people felt in the sixties and the way they feel now, takes up a large part of the movie. It’s a debate that remains ambiguous from start to finish, as the characters recognise the corruption and injustice of contemporary America, while feeling that the power of the state is now almost unassailable.
In old age they weigh up their commitment to political ideals against their ties with family and friends, highlighting the painful disjunctions between public and private life; between social conscience and self-preservation. These discussions exude a disenchantment that leaves the realm of fiction, presenting the issues that loom large in Redford’s own mind
If there is a major flaw in the plot it is the idea that Ben Shepherd, as an investigative reporter, would be able to outgun the FBI at every step. One of the symptoms of contemporary life is that investigative journalism is almost dead, largely as a result of media cost-cutting. This is broached in the film but Shepherd’s character still has an air of pantomime. Is he acting in behalf of truth and justice, or as an unwitting ally for a malign establishment? In this movie we are left with the Zen-like revelation that everyone is guilty and everyone is innocent.
No, Chile, France, USA, rated M, 117 mins
The Company You Keep, USA, rated M, 122 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, April 20, 2013