Advertising becomes a force for good in the absorbing Chilean drama No. Gael García Bernal stars as René, a Don Draperish ad exec who helps shape the 1988 campaign to unseat dictator Augusto Pinochet, but the retro cool look and fashionable cynicism that invites comparison to Mad Men is merely an undercurrent, threatening to pull René down while he strives for higher ideals.
Early scenes inside the boardroom also evoke the AMC series, but with a wry nod to today's more sophisticated audience. René presents a typically '80s cola commercial, filled with young, beautiful people randomly prancing about, flicking their hair and grinning ecstatically. A cut to a mime makes the client squirm, begging the question: is this the American dream, or a nightmare?
René is nonetheless successful. He seduces his clients (and TV audiences) with an idea of freedom, which is why he is approached to spearhead the No campaign when Pinochet bows to international pressure and calls for a referendum on his leadership. René's father was also a well-known dissident, but René is reluctant to take the job, because his own little boy depends on him.
Eventually, René agrees to take the less conspicuous role of consultant, but this still puts him at loggerheads with his boss (a wasp-chewing Alfredo Castro) who reports to the government - assuring them the No campaign is a nonstarter. René's estranged wife (Antonia Zegers) is also opposed, believing the entire referendum to be a sham, designed to validate a bogus regime.
René finds himself in a lonely place and Bernal conveys this without much fuss. On the other hand, those conflicts should have offered more fertile ground for director Pablo Larrain to dig into. With Post Mortem and Tony Manero before it, No completes a loose trilogy of stories from the Pinochet era, but the climate of fear in Chile is more a talking point here, not a palpable mood.
The concerns René initially has about the welfare of his son (by risking his job and making himself a target of the regime) fade into the background as the campaign goes to air on television in weekly segments. Meanwhile the knotty relationship with his ex begins to feel like an indulgence, with Zegers (Larrain's real-life spouse) being little more than a mouthpiece for the radical left.
Eventually, it is the creative arguments (rather than the domestic ones) that take centre stage with René under increasing pressure to defend his shiny, happy pop ad approach against others wanting to highlight Pinochet's crimes against humanity. Presumably, these arguments are also the driving force of the play by Antonio Skármeta on which the film is based.
The clash of ideas is fascinating because they boil down to what makes us human: are we driven by hope or fear? It's just that René's argument may have been more compelling with a larger dose of both, and since René isn't based on a real person (he's an amalgam of two) Larrain could have taken the liberty. Ultimately, there's no danger this'll rouse the crowds, but it does take a quiet hold.