In 1976 the Argentinian Armed Forces led a coup d’état that would put the country under military dictatorship for seven years. During these seven years an estimated 9,000 to 30,000 civilians, mostly political opponents and their families were abducted and killed by the Military Government. Many were pregnant mothers who were forced to give birth in primitive conditions before their children were taken away and adopted by families loyal to the military.
It was a bloody and brutal chapter in Argentina’s history that only ended with a democratic election in 1983 after which the leaders of the military government faced judicial trial. This ‘Trial of the Juntas’ makes up the backbone of Argentina, 1985, a new historical drama by Santiago Mitre. Focusing on the events surrounding the historic trial and the lives of the prosecution charged with bringing the former government to justice. Taking particular interest in Chief Prosecutor Julio Strassera.
The historical context is important to note for the purposes of this review because it must be said the film does not excel at communicating all this. A few scant lines, most of which focus more on the intransigence of the military government are meant to set the scene. For Argentinians and those familiar with the history this may be all that’s required but the casual viewer hardly gets the sense that we’re witnessing the biggest war crimes trial since Nuremberg.
The first half of the film is more concerned with Strassera’s internal life than his historic role. Treating it as one more inconvenience to balance alongside a strong-willed teenage daughter and inquiring son. It succeeds in making an incredibly relatable human being out of a crucial figure in history. Invested with humanity from Ricardo Darin’s empathetic performance we get to understand the weight of Strassera’s role in the context of an everyman.
It’s only during the preliminary hearing that the cast is expanded. When we first meet his deputy prosecutor Luis Morena Ocampo. Played by Peter Lanzani, Ocampo presents a naïve, but capable figure nakedly in over his head prosecuting his country’s former leaders. However despite having a mother who is staunchly pro-military, Ocampo is afforded none of the depth we enjoy in Strassera. His potential conflict serves as little more than a bellwether for their success in the trial.
Even less character is afforded to the young legal team assembled to gather evidence against the Juntas. Recruited via interviews with the tone of a workplace sitcom rather than factual legal drama Argentina, 1985’s inorganic attempt to inject comedy falls flat. This is an investigation into the war crimes of a corrupt government committed on its own people. To waste time joking about Argentinian rock bands feels ill-suited.
Thankfully when the film gets to the true depth of what the government’s victims endured, it is treated with a sense of heartbreaking tragedy. Unfortunately, there’s no sense of real progression leading to these cathartic moments. The investigation and subsequent controversy is shown in montage form, robbing us of any substantive buildup. We are told of the death threats and need for increased security but never shown the impact this has on the prosecutions lives outside of Strassera. Of the eclectic cast he is the only one allowed to experience any real drama.
Like The Official History, Argentina, 1985 is a powerful, dramatic portrayal of a pivotal moment in history. Worth checking out on that basis alone. It’s a well-made, well-acted courtroom drama that makes the cliched mistake of wanting to rush to the closing statement. Rather than show us the details of the legal work, the personal woes, the setbacks that make the legal genre so rich.