Set during the rule of Chilean dictactor Augusto Pinochet, No is the title of a real political TV campaign that ran as part of a 1988 referendum on Pinochet’s right to rule – a condition imposed on him by the international community as acceptance of his legitimacy as president.
René (Gael García Bernal, taking up another socio-political story after Even the Rain) is a young, senior advertising agency creative with a taste for the glossy, youthful advertising that has become synonymous with the prosperity sweeping Reagan’s America. The son of an eminent (but, we are to presume missing) socialist activist mentioned in passing, he has a nice sports car, a nice house, a young son and an estranged wife, Verónica (Antonia Zegers), who is committed to the socialist party and its street demonstrations against the murders and disappearances that shadowed Pinochet’s rule.
René is pushed out of his comfort zone by a request from a socialist party member to develop the “No” campaign as part of the allotted 15 minutes on TV given to each side of the referendum. It’s worth pointing out that in Chile this would be a rare opportunity for relatively free expression under the censor’s hand. The phrase “TV legitimises everything” is invoked by René– it is the ultimate power to reach millions. Therefore, consideration for its content is wrangled over between the Party and some ad agency staff, who wish to vent their grief and anger over extra-judicial killings, and René who wishes to drive the campaign like a product launch, hiding a political message of rejection in a vibrant campaign focused on happiness. Needless to say, his client is horrified at what they see as a dismissal of history and its unavenged dead.
The film has gripping moments as René and his team are haunted by government minders, who daub slogans on his home and make threatening phone calls in the middle of the night, and the final scene of the vote count has some tension but, this isn’t an out and out thriller about a protest movement. It is more a question mark over the man who ultimately created the “No” campaign: is he really politically motivated? René appears to be gradually seduced by the challenge of an impossible brief that needs a “miracle” to win, rather than an obvious political will, as is shown by his wife. He loves the challenge of successfully driving a product through to its audience, whether that product is a cola or a political call to action. His final scene appears to show a disconnection with the cause, his mission finished, he seems deflated, though perhaps he is just exhausted. The ambiguity is interesting.