Chilean writer-director Pablo Larraín's fourth film, No, details one of the most important moments in Chile's political history: The 1988 plebiscite that would either allow the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet to continue for another eight years or to herald a democratic state permitting free elections. Centering around a sought after advertising man by the name of René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), No is a dramatic, often heart-wrenching portrait of the efforts it took just to get people to consider putting aside their fear to stand up against a blatantly tyrannical dictatorship.
One of the most notable aspects of No is Larraín's decision to use U-Matic magnetic tape in low definition to lend the film an especially organic, 1980s feel--making the viewer experience the rough-hewn quality of the decade. René himself is an extremely successful ad man with no need for additional income. But when approached by a member of the "No" campaign, he can't help but be intrigued by the challenge of opposing Chile's long-established dictatorship. The parameters of the campaign entail twenty-seven nights of broadcasting each perspective of the "Yes" and "No" angles, with both sides getting fifteen minutes of air time every night.
René's challenge lies not only in getting voter participation, but also creating a campaign that will actually resonate with the Chilean population. Because of his familiarity and expertise in marketing to youth culture (the film's opening showcases a recent Pepsi-esque commercial he made for Free Cola--featuring a band and a mime), René's confidence in tackling the project is perhaps a bit misguided. Meanwhile, Pinochet's counsel has desperately enlisted the help of René's boss, Lucho (Alfredo Castro--an ironic homage to another dictator we know), to help gain an edge over the already memorable "No" campaign.
After René sees the latest fifteen minute segment from the "Yes" campaign--a blatant attack on the facts presented in the "No" segment--he immediately realizes that his boss has stabbed him in the back. His ex-wife, Veronica (Antonia Zegers), notes that everything in advertising is "a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy" anyway. With the "No" campaign gaining true momentum, people within the Pinochet government begin to threaten the livelihood of not only René, but his son, Simon (Pascal Montero), as well.
As political tensions continue to mount, René sends Simon to stay with Veronica, unwittingly encountering her new boyfriend in the process (incidentally, wearing a "No" campaign sweatshirt that René designed himself). The pain of this discovery makes the litany of issues coming at René seem even more pronounced as he struggles with the prospect of losing his campaign after putting so much earnest effort into it. When election day finally comes, the celebrants at the "No" campaign rally are dispersed through violent means by members of the government military. As René looks on in horror at what he views as havoc he is responsible for creating, he grabs his son and runs through the crowd, only to spot Veronica being apprehended by one of the members of the militia. In a subtle moment, the camera captures the glint of a rainbow through the spray of water being doused at the crowd--the same emblem of the "No" campaign signs and t-shirts.
Once Lucho has bailed out Veronica through his connections with the Pinochet government--after lording the favor over René with an air of superiority--René regains his focus on the final hours of the election. Flashing to archival images of Jane Fonda, Christopher Reeve and (somewhat randomly) Richard Dreyfuss wishing the Chilean people luck, the American influence on foreign culture in the 80s continues to assert itself (especially with frequent earlier allusions to the "We Are the World" effort).
Although the results appear initially grim, the election ends up miraculously favoring the "No" campaign. During the revelatory outburst, however, René's win seems somehow hollow as he walks through the crowd without Veronica. In many respects, you might say that No is Chile's version of Argo in terms of a commitment to historical accuracy--both visually and storywise.