In 1988 the fate of Chile and its dictator came down to a ballot as simple as a middle-schooler's do-you-like-me? note. A referendum offered citizens a simple choice: a "yes" for allowing President Augusto Pinochet to return to office for another eight years, having clung to power since his 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende, or a "no" for something — anything — else. Tyrants control their media, of course, but the opposition wasn't entirely shut out. The national "debate" platform was two 15-minute television slots in which opposing viewpoints could be voiced, after which regularly-scheduled programming — that is, flagrantly pro-Pinochet propaganda — would resume for the remaining 23 ½ hours of the day.
Pablo Larrain's ad-world political thriller No takes place during that referendum. Like Zero Dark Thirty, which opened with an audio collage of actual 911 calls from 9/11, No uses the actual commercial material the opposition created for its anti-Pinochet campaign and, recreating the behind-the-scenes filming, deftly appropriates mediated history for fiction.
Ad exec René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) is introduced pitching a campaign for a cola called Free. Though Saavedra's father was a political exile, he has established a comfortable middle-class home for his own son. All of this is put at risk when Saavedra, approached for his expertise by a representative for the 17 motley opposition parties, agrees to act as a consultant on their "No" TV spots, streamlining their dissent into a single cogent message to crack the dictatorship's calcified consensus and sell, yes, freedom.
Saavedra jettisons the mostly leftist opposition's po-faced, old-school agitprop — montages of police crackdowns, figures on disappeared dissidents, checklists of the Pinochet regime's abuses. "Happiness is our concept," he says, then proceeds to manufacture the most inanely positive campaign for "No" imaginable: A rainbow logo! Insipid stock images of future bliss! Choice of a New Generation fizz! A clap-your-hands sing-along jingle! Celebrity endorsements!
By comparison, the stodgy pro-Pinochet campaign is out-of-date, all red-baiting and fear-mongering. A child endangered by an oncoming steamroller evokes memories of Lyndon Johnson's 1964 golden oldie "Peace Little Girl (Daisy)" ad, while the general has all the on-screen magnetism of a mattress-warehouse owner in a local-market commercial. Though Pinochet was a despot of the right, the phenomenon that No dramatizes is the same that eroded the dictatorships of the communist left in Eastern Europe at the same time: the triumph of youth-catering MTV showmanship over the old line of father-knows-best propaganda.
While Saavedra uses the grammar of commercial advertising to sell Chileans democracy, Larrain's film works within an aesthetic template of its own: the language of contemporary hand-held cinematic realism. By shooting on three-quarter-inch Sony U-matic magnetic tape, the standard format of pre-1990 television news, Larrain can seamlessly mesh staged material with vintage 1988 footage of actual police crackdowns and pro-democracy assemblies.
What stays with you from No — certainly more than the scenes of Saavedra's home life, which don't register as more than the obligatory establishment of "something to fight for" motivation — is the film's sense of living in history that's mediated even as it's made. For some of the old guard in the opposition, including Saavedra's estranged wife, the seductive vapidity of the "No" campaign is an unconscionable betrayal of the bloody legacy of resistance. The ambivalence stirred up by these voices hangs over No until the triumphant conclusion, curiously muted, in which Chileans, like the former residents of the Soviet Union and its satellites, step out of dictatorship ... only to find themselves citizens of a whole new simulacra.