In 1988, after 15 years in power, Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet caved in to world pressure and agreed to a plebiscite that would allow the people to vote yes or no as to whether to extend his rule for another eight years. The vote was rigged from the start — Pinochet had no intention of leaving power, no matter the result — but his government played along. Each night, over the course of a month, each side would be given 15 minutes of television air time to make their case in whatever style they chose.
The government opted to portray Pinochet as a hero of the people. The opposition, made up of several different political parties, took a different approach. They hired Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), an advertising executive who made his living coming up with campaigns for soft drinks and microwaves, to serve as a consultant.
At first, Rene commits only to give his opinion on their campaign: Montages of citizens being brutalized by police, testimonials by the mothers and wives of missing political activists and an attempt to demonize Pinochet and his regime. But once he sees what they’ve come up with, he starts to become more involved with their cause. He insists the “no” campaign has to be bright and cheerful, not dark and heavy-handed. The only way to get young people, who have no faith in the system, and the elderly, who are afraid to rock the boat, is to make voting “no” seem fun and exciting.
Gripping and suspenseful even though the ending is already known, No was directed by Pablo Larraín using a video camera from the 1980s, which gives the movie a low-resolution, grainy look. The approach allows him to show you the actual ads that aired during the month-long campaign, with each side responding to their opponents’ tactics from the previous night’s footage. The segments are fascinating, literally a nightly tug of war broadcast on state-controlled media outlets. Although his friends and his boss advise him to not get involved, and he starts receiving threats to him and his young son, Rene perseveres with the campaign. At first, he was doing it out of curiosity.
By film’s end, he’s doing it out of a sense of patriotic duty. No is an exploration of the power of the media to manipulate hearts and minds. The moral of the story: Always go positive.