Chile, 1988. Under pressure from the west, the ruling General Pinochet calls a referendum on whether he should remain in power for a further eight years. The numerous opposition groups work together in their campaign against the dictator and are labelled "Communists", regardless of their political leanings. In the weeks leading to the vote, the "Yes" and "No" campaigns are allotted 15 minutes of TV time each evening to put across their message. With the TV networks under the control of Pinochet, the "No" campaign's 15 minutes take on huge importance. A young advertising man (Bernal) is hired to lead the campaign against the wishes of his agency's head (Castro) who is working for the opposing "Yes" campaign.
The disparities of 'No' are as great as those which existed between the ruling and working classes of Pinochet's Chile. Larrain's film tells its hi-fi story in a lo-fi manner, like a biopic of Michael Bay directed by Robert Altman. The flashy (for 1988) nature of Bernal's American-inspired commercials are in stark contrast to the old-school video (think Altman's 1988 campaign expose 'Tanner 88') employed by Larrain. Bernal's character is the son of a left-wing dissident while Larrain's own father was a right-wing "Yes" voter. To the dismay of his socialist clients, Bernal sells their ideals with the same techniques he employs to flog Soap-Operas and Coke knock-offs. Rather than hiring a songwriter to compose an "anthem" for the campaign, Bernal uses a jingle-writer. (The jingle will be stuck in your head for days after seeing the film.)
Apart from a helpful scroll over the credits to explain the backstory, 'No' refuses to pander to its audience. You're either on board or you aren't. I for one was gripped from beginning to end. The lo-fi video format is jarring for a couple of minutes but, ultimately, it's a brilliant decision, one which transports you back to its era far more impressively than the Top-40 tunes and retro beards of the similarly themed 'Argo'. The images blend in perfectly with archive footage of the time without resorting to cheesy 'Forrest Gump' tricks. When Bernal gets caught up in a riot, it's a terrifying moment because it looks so authentic.
The great film-makers can take a big theme and distill it down to a smaller, more recognizable one. Against a larger backdrop, Larrain tells a simple story of an employee attempting to get one over on his boss. The relationship between the two is fascinating. Despite Castro at times threatening Bernal's family, the level of animosity simmers somewhere below the level of two co-workers who support rival football teams. It's a stark, and wholly refreshing, contrast to the black-and-white characterization rampant in modern cinema. Blunt self-congratulatory films like 'Argo' may be the choice of a generation but you would do well to just say 'No'. What's the worst that could happen?