Pablo Larrain's “No” looks and feels like a cruddy VHS tape recording of the revolution being televised, an often brilliant and caustically satirical evocation of how media and messaging finally brought an end to General Augusto Pinochet's reign in Chile. “No” plays like a historical document, rewinding to that moment in 1988 when the Chilean people were, at long last, able to dislodge their dictator.
Any discussion of this docudrama must start with technical specs, because they lend “No” much of its power and realism. Lorrain shot “No” on magnetic analog videotape in the old 4:3 aspect ratio, so it looks like Chilean television from the late-1980s. This was a shrewd artistic decision: by shooting the story of ad executive René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) using antique technology, Lorrain is able to seamlessly integrate real footage from both sides of the campaign without disrupting the sense of time and place.
After 15 years in office, during which over 3,000 of Pinochet's political opponents and dissidents were executed and thousands more imprisoned, Pinochet's military government confidently scheduled a plebiscite in 1988 — an opportunity for voters to decide whether to retain Pinochet in office or hold elections for new leadership. It became a question of “si” or “no”: voters could either vote “yes” to keep Pinochet in office or vote against his unchecked power.
Lorrain wisely chose not to idealize the “no” movement: in the beginning, it was dominated by ideologues who were highly principled but had no concept of how to persuade or win.
The early meetings depict a group of people who were used to being on the losing end of things under Pinochet, possibly even mildly addicted to the idea of being underdogs.
Saavedra, in contrast, was in the business of selling soft drinks — his ads for a South American soda look like the MTV-saturated, ultra-smiley ads of the 1980s. He knew there was a better way to get the point across than stern lectures.
Because of Larrain's technique, real figures from the time period figure prominently in “No” without feeling like images dredged from the archives. Pinochet's real “Si” campaign images are used and display a complete disconnect or disregard for reality, and American celebrities such as Christopher Reeve, Jane Fonda and Richard Dreyfuss are shown in their “No” messages. Ultimately, the anti-Pinochet campaign won by a landslide and elections were held in 1990, and “No” realistically and convincingly chronicles a successful campaign for Chile's hearts and minds.
— George Lang