Thoroughly engaging drama that retells Chile's great 1988 political saga, when right-wing dictator Augosto Pinochet - 15 years after overtaking the country in a military coup - bowed to international pressure to make his regime appear "democratic" and thus allowed the public to cast their votes on a simple yes/no ballot: "Yes" meant 8 more years of Pinochet rule. "No" meant he had to step down.
At the outset, it seemed like a joke: few Chileans believed that the ruthless Pinochet would ever step down. Nevertheless, with the government allowing the "No" campaign 15 minutes of airtime every night for a month on the state-run TV network, a ragtag collective of left-wing parties defied the odds by launching a surprisingly effective ad campaign. No is a dramatization of the making of that campaign - and of the "Yes" campaign as well. Actual footage from both campaigns are used in the film, and the cheesy late '80s visuals are great fun.
Gael García Bernal plays the fictional René Saavedra, an up-and-coming ad man hired by the left-wingers to oversee the campaign. To these Californian ears, all the Spanish spoken in the film sounds the same, but presumably the Mexican Bernal doesn't have a convincing Chilean accent, so it's explained that his character's family was exiled from Chile to Mexico in the '70s. This cheat actually adds to the drama, as it makes the Saavedra character more passionate about the abuses of the Pinochet regime - which stretched far beyond exiling Chilean citizens and well into imprisonment, torture, and the "disappearing" of political enemies.
Although we now all know that eventually Pinochet was forced out of power, I was just clueless enough to not know whether the "No" campaign actually won in 1988, or if their efforts led to something else. If you're in the dark too, it might add to No's suspense. But even if you know everything that happened, the film remains gripping, enjoyable, and impressively authentic.
The authenticity goes beyond the campaign videos and Bernal's humorous rat tail haircut: director Larraín even shot the entire film on 3/4 inch video, which is what the characters would have used at the time. So No has an old 4:3 TV aspect ratio and a flat video look, but it still moves and sounds like a contemporary film.
I recommend No. It's engaging and enlightening cinema somewhat reminiscent of the documentary The War Room (about the machinations behind the 1992 Clinton campaign) but with quite a bit more at stake. The only iffy thing about it is the somewhat unbelievable plot device where Saavedra's own boss heads up Pinochet's "Yes" campaign. It adds to the drama, but feels just a tad contrived.