Argo meets TV's Mad Men in No, an engaging, Oscar-nominated political thriller from Chilean director Pablo Larrain. No tells the fictionalized story of Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), an advertising man in 1988 Chile who uses techniques borrowed from American TV to power an election campaign that would topple dictator Augusto Pinochet's 15-year reign — but only if he can persuade a reluctant and fearful electorate to vote "no" in a referendum called solely to placate Pinochet's international critics. Rene is a composite of real people who worked on the campaign, but the larger story at the center of No is true. Both the movie's suspense and its David-and-Goliath appeal are taken straight from the pages of history.
As No begins, Rene seems little more than a younger, hipper version of Mad Men's Don Draper, enjoying his personal success despite the squalor that surrounds him in Santiago. He's completely comfortable with the modern ad techniques he recently acquired to sell soft drinks. After a family friend running the campaign against Pinochet convinces Rene to join the effort, he meets resistance to his ideas — which involve a "happy," lifestyle-centered TV campaign, complete with a catchy jingle — from a coalition of political groups interested mainly in making a public statement against the dictator. Rene wants to win the referendum, despite the long odds and a strong possibility that the fix is on, and he may be the only one with a notion of how to do it.
Like Argo, No is hell-bent on recreating a bygone era on film. But where Ben Affleck's movie relies on costumes and set design to heighten its 1970s aesthetic, No goes straight to the source. Larrain shot No on Sony U-matic video, a low-resolution professional format introduced in 1971 and still used by Chilean news crews in 1988. It's a bit of shock to see vintage color-ringing on the film's opening logos and the smeared and dingy images featured throughout — especially in a modern and fully digital theater. But No's visuals deliver a real sense of time and place while allowing for seamless integration with archival footage from the era.
Tales of media manipulation always seem to resonate well in the present era, whether involving the advertising industry, the so-called 24-hour news networks or the manufactured truth of reality TV. That's how No quietly connects to the world of today. In a climactic scene, it becomes clear that once you introduce the power to manipulate — even for a righteous cause — it's never going away. Though unspoken, No's final message is straightforward: Be careful what you wish for, especially regarding the unstoppable influence of mass media. — KEN KORMAN