September 16, 2012



In 1988, the Chilean military dictatorship headed by General Augusto Pinochet was forced by diplomatic pressure to finally permit a democratic election, in order to prove its claim that the country’s people supported his presidency.  The plebiscite was simple:  voters would vote either “Yes” or “No” to authorize an additional 8-year term for the regime .  As part of the rules, the political opposition, which until now had been persecuted if it even tried to express itself publicly, was given 15 nightly minutes of relatively unrestricted television airtime.  Rather than simply air anti-government testimonials during that broadcast, the opposition hired high-powered advertising executives–the Mad Men of that time and place–to generate viewer-friendly content that included brightly-colored logos, catchy jingles and comedy skits (as well as statements from such movie stars as Christopher Reeve, Richard Dreyfuss and Jane Fonda).  Against all logic–everyone assumed all along that the election would be fixed by the regime–the campaign worked, and Pinochet was unseated as President (although he continued to rule the nation’s army for another decade).

That’s a great story, and a terrific movie could be made from it.  For an American audience, though, the new film NO is hobbled by some very curious decisions by its director Pablo Larrain.  Most notably, Larrain has chosen to shoot the entire picture in the style of a cinema verite documentary on 1988-quality videotape, with blurred images, smeary colors, an incessantly shaky hand-held camera and a TV-set size 1.33:1 aspect ratio.  (The cinematography is by Sergio Armstrong.)   This allows for smooth transitions with the real archive footage of the anti-Pinochet ad campaign used in the film, but otherwise seems hardly necessary, and serves only to distance viewers from the story.  The “documentary” look isn’t carried forward into the script by Pedro Peirano, which tells a traditional narrative, and that makes the hand-held style feel like little more than an annoying affectation.

The script is also underdeveloped.  The ad execs of real life have been combined into the fictional Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), and he’s the only character drawn with any depth.  This was a story that badly could have used an Aaron Sorkin touch with the dialogue and pacing (yes, even the Sorkin of The Newsroom), but unless the subtitles are doing an injustice to the screenplay, none of these smart, committed people we see are saying anything much that’s witty or interesting, and there’s little sense of how the race is going outside the TV studio. There’s also no larger discussion of the implications for this or other electorates of selling a government by means of ad agency strategies, or of any other issues raised by the campaign or the election.

Despite all these shortcomings, the story of No is so compelling that a fair amount of it works.  The footage we see from both the “Yes” and “No” campaigns is fascinating, and particularly funny when the government side starts ham-handedly imitating the “No” campaign.  One can’t help but get caught up in a race where the good guys and bad are so instantly clear-cut.  But it’s frustrating to watch the film and see how its choices have very deliberately cut itself off from its own grand narrative.  What should have been a “Hell, Yeah” is only able to achieve a “Sort Of.”




About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."