There are not too many examples in the encyclopedia of dictatorships where the despot leaves office through the ballot box. The status-quo method is for him to pass on or be overthrown in a subsequent coup. General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Chile’s democratically elected President in 1973 and enacted a campaign of exile, torture, disappearances, and straight-up murder against anyone alleged to be in opposition to him.
By 1988, feeling pressure from the international community for his lack of legitimacy, Pinochet agreed to a vote where ‘Yes’ means he would stay in office for eight more years and a ‘No’ vote means fresh elections would be held sans Pinochet. Both sides would be allotted 15 minutes of TV time for 27 days to campaign for their respective sides. Enter Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal).
Rene is a successful advertising exec recruited by the ‘No’ campaign to put together their 15-minute spots. Rene wants to turn out the youth vote using the latest marketing methods like those you would see in an ad for Coca-Cola. There will be people dancing in the street, families having picnics, humorous jokes with a married couple in bed, and overall, everyone will be happy. Coke does not sell Coke by telling you Pepsi tastes bad. They say you can be this happy too if you drink Coke.
The established opposition, oppressed and beat up for years by government thugs, despises these cheap tricks as gimmicks and complains they ignore the 15 years of human rights violations perpetrated by Pinochet. They are absolutely right; however, Rene asks them whether they either want to win the vote or whine for 15 minutes every night about the past. This election is about the future.
Director Pablo Larrain made a very bold and risky decision with how he chose to shoot his movie. He used low-definition Sony U-matic magnetic tape to film it. The aspect ratio is an uncomfortable 4:3 and the picture looks faded, washed out, and has frequent scenes shot looking up from below which get blinded by the sun. The U-matic was widely used by Chilean news media in the late ‘80s; therefore, the audience is unable to tell which scenes is actual footage from the protests and vote and which are new.
This decision is so bold it probably cost Larrain some votes in the Oscar’s Best Foreign Film category. The effect works; I had no idea whether or not some scenes were shot in 2012 or 1988. Unfortunately, the film is ugly. Audiences are not used to this aspect ratio, which takes them out of the film, the bleached-out color lacks punch, and the shaky from below camera work becomes a nuisance. Bravo to Larrain for taking such a risk, but No would have been much more effective with modern filmmaking techniques.
No’s savior is its unique story. The idea of overthrowing a brutal dictatorship through TV advertising you would see on a Mad Men episode ensures an interesting film about a time and place most people are not too familiar with. Even if you already know how the vote turned out, watching original footage of street protests, violent police responses, and Pinochet himself talking to you on the screen makes for an interesting history lesson. Also, here is an integral example of the beginning of slick TV advertising mixing with political activism, a phenomenon many probably do not cheer, yet remains part of the process even today.