Straight off, "No" is one ugly movie. Shot on a grainy 1980s U-Matic video camera with a muddy gray-and-brown color palette, the Oscar-nominated flick by director Pablo Larrain is not going to win you over with pretty pictures.
Of course, the movie takes place in a very ugly period in history: the waning days of Augusto Pinochet's brutal regime. No Chilean needs to be reminded that the military strongman seized power in 1973 following a CIA-led coup and then brutally crushed all dissent. Yet what made sense back during the realpolitik of the '70s became an embarrassment in the late '80s when the Soviet Union was gasping its last breath. Bowing to international pressure, Pinochet grudgingly allows a referendum on his reign to go forward in 1988. A yes would give the mustached generalissimo another eight years in power. A no, in theory, would not.
Enter Gene Saavedra (a real-life figure played by Gael Garcia Bernal) an advertising wunderkind -- think a shaggy Don Draper in an ugly sweater -- who has made a name for himself directing slick, American-style soda-pop ads, complete with mimes and musical routines. When he's tapped to convince a scared and demoralized populace to vote no, he realizes that the nation's dissident community -- who have endured 15 years of torture, repression, and "disappearances" -- are in no mood for mimes or musical routines. Saavedra first needs to convince them that a "Morning in America"-style campaign will not just speak truth to power but also win. Once his ads start to air, with a complete earworm of a theme song, the government's reaction quickly goes from arrogant condescension to growing panic. Cue dirty tricks and armed thugs.
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"No" reminded me of another awards season favorite: "Argo." Both movies are true stories about how media illusion triumphs over the bare-knuckled reality of politics. Both are set during the last decade of the Cold War, an era with unfortunate hair and even more unfortunate sweaters. And both are by turns comedic, satirical, and very suspenseful. This movie, however, has a much catchier theme song.
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See the trailer for 'No':