Many say that political rhetoric in the mainstream media is dead. NO purports to perform the autopsy.
It's 1988 in Chile, and American-backed General Pinochet is facing international pressure — his government's policy of constant abduction and torture have turned the people against him. His cabinet sets up a plebiscite that will allow citizens to vote "Yes" or "No" on whether Pinochet should remain in power. With half the population frozen by fear and the other half mired in apathy, the regime's victory seems assured.
Enter René (Gael García Bernal), an ad man assigned to help the "No" campaign, which has 15 minutes of TV time nightly to plead its case to the people. The initial videos are painfully solemn, full of statistics, depictions of brutality, and outrage. They're honest. They're also, René whines, "a drag."
So René decides to take the politics out of the political programming. He starts broadcasting "We Are the World"–type music videos. He pulls the judges, commentators, and pundits representing the "No" campaign off the air. And he begins to use MTV-style editing techniques, replacing direct messages with abstract feelings. In other words, he stops being an activist and becomes a filmmaker.
The actual filmmaker here, director Pablo Larrain, defiantly shoots the movie in low-definition video, complete with color blurs and soft detail. It's a stunt, but it's not without purpose: a surprising portion of the film is archival footage, and it's cut into the narrative with impressive continuity. You'd never know that Larrain didn't stage every second. He lets the broadcasts and advertisements take over, showing us in meticulous detail how René took an oppressed people's first chance at free speech, corrupted it into something resembling a soda commercial, and won out for the greater good all the same.
Larrain plays the ensuing success on two levels, contrasting the uplifting human-rights victory with the cynicism of the game plan that was needed to achieve it. In this way, it recalls recent Hollywood hits Argo and Lincoln. As Affleck did with Argo, Larrain takes a Costa-Gavras–style procedural script and turns it into a thrilling potboiler. And, like Lincoln, NO suggests that "the common people" aren't smart enough to be progressive: they have to be duped into voting for their best interests.
There's a great scene in Taxi Driver where Cybill Shepherd says that selling a political candidate is like "selling mouthwash." Here's a movie about a man who realizes that.