Bending Towards Justice – Argentina, 1985

Awards Season is officially underway. The studios are already initiating their campaigns for various films and performers, the festival circuit has become a contest of one-upmanship to see which upcoming movies can have the longest standing ovation to generate buzz, and yesterday was the first major deadline for the Oscars, including for countries submitting an entry for International Feature. We’re still awaiting official word from the Academy on the full list, but tentatively, 82 different films will vie for the prize. And as usual, I’m going to track down as many as I possibly can.

The first one on the docket is Argentina, 1985, from you guessed it, Frank Stallone, er, I mean Argentina. A grandiose, sweeping look at arguably the most important moment of their relatively young democracy, the movie is a resonant and relevant tale told in classic Hollywood fashion. It’s by no means perfect, but it is thoroughly entertaining, and in the tradition of some of the best issue films of the last several decades, like Spotlight, All the President’s Men, and Bridge of Spies, the focus is largely on the inspiring grunt work performed by everyday people just doing their jobs and eschewing the limelight.

As explained in opening text, after Argentina’s military dictatorship was overthrown (themselves coming to power through a coup), the newly-formed democratic government decided to hold a public trial of the junta for crimes against humanity, including thousands of cases of rape, torture, murder, and unresolved disappearances, mostly against civilians. The job of making the case against them fell to the country’s only federal prosecutor at the time, Julio Strassera, played here by Ricardo Darín (who also appeared The Secret in Their Eyes in 2009, the last Argentine film to win the Oscar). He is depicted early on as having been appointed to the post mostly as a custodian by the new President, until the largest human rights case since the Nuremburg Trials is dropped in his lap. Even then, there are hints of corruption in the new order, looking to throw the book at some of the junta leaders while being more lenient on others. Strassera himself is reluctant to proceed, as he was a prosecutor during the dictatorship as well, and as such can become a target for those still loyal to it.

Joining him as his deputy is a young lawyer named Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), who despite his intellect and passion, has never tried a case before. He too is unsure of his path, as he comes from a privileged family with a deep military history, including lower level leaders from the old regime. Strassera is deeply annoyed with the scant resources he’s been given, not to mention a time constraint to amass the evidence needed to even have a chance at conviction in a trial that ends up lasting most of the year. However, he forms a rapport with Moreno Ocampo because of his counterpart’s resourcefulness, and because of his innovative suggestion to recruit young law students, people who grew up under the junta’s oppressive thumb and who’ve seen the atrocities first-hand, to help in the project and earn the trust of potential witnesses who would normally be too afraid to come forward.

It is in this yeoman’s work that the film is at its best. As I said, it follows in the footsteps of some of the best procedurals out there in that it keeps the focus mostly on the actual hours spent and the commitment necessary to build the case. The filmmakers could have been satisfied with just having a force for good in Strassera take on one-dimensional evil defendants, and for what it’s worth, that’s pretty much how the military leaders are portrayed. They’re all defiant, unanimously announcing that they don’t recognize the legitimacy or authority of the court, and openly mocking the proceedings and the public in attendance.

But the material rises above such cheap tripe by showing its work, figuratively and literally. The young legal minds pound the pavement all over the country to uncover the truth and find people willing to go on record. There’s a systematic approach to tie everything together and link the worst offenses back to leadership. In what I’d say is the best creative choice of the entire affair, when the trial gets underway, witness testimony is read verbatim from the court record by the actors, an almost complete recreation of the televised proceedings. The movie opens with the old “Based on actual events” line (which is the legally safer version of “Based on a true story,” as it grants more dramatic license), but when it really counts, director Santiago Mitre opts for the best form of verisimilitude, which sells the dramatic weight more than any sweeping score or melodramatic acting ever could.

That said, there are some issues. Throughout the picture, it’s kind of hard to pin down exactly what tone the film is trying to set or carry. There are several light and funny moments, like Strassera pretending not to know Moreno Ocampo’s name and intentionally mispronouncing it before they become friends, a cheeky line from the trial, or the appointment of a bumbling security detail. I think they’re meant to soften the harsher moments, especially as we get deeper into the trial, and occasionally it works. But mostly they undercut the tension and had me more antsy for the next important plot point, not from anticipation, mind you, but more from a feeling that we were dicking around to pad the runtime.

This extends to the point where there’s some genuine confusion about what type of film this is. At its best, it’s a solid legal procedural and inspirational courtroom drama. But at other points it takes on the appearance of a buddy comedy, a family film, a workplace ensemble movie, and a spy thriller. The overall product doesn’t suffer too much in these moments, but they are noticeably jarring.

Finally, there are a bunch of plot threads that either aren’t resolved, or have minimal, unsatisfying payoffs when they are. For example, Strassera is often called “Loco” by his colleagues and contemporaries. Now, I’ll admit that I know none of the intricacies of the Spanish language, so I have to rely on the translation and subtitles, so this particular interpretation may be a bit ropey. But every time he’s called that, “Crazy” is capitalized in the text on screen, and the intonation of the sentences when they address him as such certainly suggest that this is an affectionate nickname. However, we never get any context for it, and we certainly never see Strassera act out in a way that would warrant it. From a performance standpoint, I actually enjoyed how stoic and subdued Darín was in the role, as if making a point to render the name ironic or outright contradictory, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t sit there for two hours wondering why he had it as a pet name in the first place. There’s one brief moment late in the film where he makes a rude gesture at the defense team, but that’s hardly enough to justify it.

Similarly, early on Strassera recruits his son, Javier (Santiago Armas Estevarena), to tail his daughter Verónica (Gina Mastronicola) on dates with her new boyfriend, because he suspects that the beau works for the old ruling party and is trying to spy on him. This subplot basically goes nowhere, has only the slightest bearing on the climax, and easily could have been cut, especially when numerous death threats render any family discord – comedic or otherwise – completely moot. Along those lines, Moreno Ocampo gets increasingly paranoid as he’s threatened and intimidated by military agents aligned with his extended family, even going so far as to lose focus during the trial… until he doesn’t, with no change in the situation to prompt it. The aforementioned security detail shows up for one early scene, gets a few laughs, and then is never seen again. Why did we even bother? A lot of these moments feel like diversions instead of plot or character development, and they only stick out because the rest of the movie is just that good.

Because the big thing to take away from Argentina, 1985 is just how important it is from a historical standpoint. This trial took place nearly 40 years ago, and stood as the first seminal moment of a new Argentina because it sent a message that human rights violations wouldn’t be tolerated, no one is above the law, and those who try to seize power by force will eventually be toppled. Fast forward to the present, and we live in an age where fascism and authoritarianism are back on the rise, where strongmen threaten the larger world if their egos aren’t appeased. Hell, we in the U.S. are still dealing with the fallout of the previous leader refusing to relinquish power and inciting an attempted coup after he was voted out.

This film highlights how necessary it is to see people like that brought to justice, but more crucially, it forces you to consider what happens if they aren’t. Throughout the story (elevated for dramatic effect, but it still happened in real life) Strassera, Moreno Ocampo, the other young lawyers, and their families are flooded with death threats from those loyal to the old ruling party, and they know that if the junta ever gains power again, they will likely be imprisoned or worse for daring to stand against them.

That sentiment carries into the modern day. After Donald Trump’s failed insurrection, several of those who took part in the riot have been prosecuted and been given a variety of prison sentences (the longest I think so far has been eight years for a man who assaulted one of the Capitol Police officers), but others have gone free, and no high-ranking official has been indicted as of yet. Members of the far-right militia, the Oath Keepers are currently on trial for seditious conspiracy, but their conviction is far from a given. What we do know is that politicians at the state and federal level loyal to Trump are vying for offices that, if they attain them, will literally allow them to change laws so that the next coup attempt succeeds, and Trump himself has promised that if he runs in 2024 and gets back in the White House, he’ll pardon everyone charged in conjunction with the attack.

Similarly, down in Brazil, Argentina’s neighbor, incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro (who has happily accepted the epithet of the “Brazilian Trump”) went into this past weekend’s election calling for lawsuits and potential violence if he didn’t win outright with at least 60% of the vote. He finished second with 43%, and is heading to a runoff with former President Lula da Silva, who got 48% but fell short of the 50% needed to secure the victory on the first go. These are real threats to the stability of the world and they’re happening right now!

A film like Argentina, 1985 is essential, flaws and all, because it makes very clear what the stakes are, as history keeps repeating itself. If those who would wield power to punish aren’t made examples, if they’re let go, if they face no justice, they’ll just keep doing it until they’re stopped. Because of Strassera and Moreno Ocampo’s methodical work, as demonstrated in this movie, Argentina was able to heal its national wounds and proceed as a new democracy. Those countries that take such liberties for granted and sit on their hands when democracy is threatened do so at risk to all.

Grade: B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are there any foreign entries you’re looking forward to? Are you excited for Awards Season or dreading it? Let me know!

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