In 1988, the government of Chile held a national plebiscite to decide whether Augusto Pinochet, the dictator who had ruled the country for 16 years, would continue his reign for another eight years or not. Citizens were asked to vote either YES or NO for Pinochet. In the 27 days leading up to the vote, each campaign had exactly 15 minutes of airtime every night on national television to get their message across. No is the story of the advertising team behind the NO campaign.
As an entry point to this story, director Pablo Larracin and screenwriter Pedro Pierano focus on René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), a hot-shot advertising executive who works on campaigns for lucrative products like Coke. Although Rene is wildly successful professionally, his personal life is in a state of disarray. He has no connection to anything political and his relationship with his free spirit, political activist wife is on its last legs.
Approached to participate on the NO campaign, Rene reluctantly declines, seeing it as a futile effort. But when his boss Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro) joins the YES campaign and tries to persuade him to join it too, Rene, now buoyed by the challenge, joins NO instead. His idea: Use positive, funny and ultimately hopeful messages and catchy jingles instead of political statements, negative messaging and dirty tactics to win the public over.
Although the results of the plebiscite are well-known, Larracin, whose previous films Tony Mareno and Post Mortem also dealt with life under the Pinochet regime, succeeds in creating a transfixing and thrilling film. He accomplishes this by using a number of techniques to keep the audience immersed in the drama. The most obvious being the decision to shoot the film on low definition U-matic tape which gives the film the look and feel of a 80s-era home video or television broadcast. Using this technique, Larracin is able to splice in real-life video footage, as well as the real YES & NO commercials into the film seamlessly, giving it a docudrama vibe, even though most of its principal characters are fictional. Larrain is aided by Pierano’s witty and wildly entertaining screenplay that’s structured like a sports movie – with back and forth jabs between the rival campaigns all leading up to voting day.
But in the end, No is more than just a film about two advertising campaigns. It’s about making a difference despite the odds being stacked against your favor. The result of the vote is a textbook example of the power of democracy and the idea behind it. And even though the title of the film is the ultimate negative, the movie itself is a case study of the triumph of optimism in the face of an avalanche of pessimism.