'Argentina, 1985' Review: Understated Docudrama Explores The Trial Of The Juntas

With a bold, declarative title such as “Argentina, 1985,” one might wonder what co-writer/director Santiago Mitre is taking on with his fifth feature. Reunited with his “The Summit” lead Ricardo Darín, Mitre turns to the Trial of the Juntas. A compelling historical docudrama, “Argentina, 1985” — Argentina’s official entry for the Academy Awards — explores a dark moment in Argentine history with striking clarity.

The film centers on Julio Strassera (Darín), a career prosecutor for the Argentinian government. After the fall of the military junta dictatorship, which ruled from 1976 to 1983, the newly installed democratic government decided to proceed with a war-crimes trial against former military leaders for crimes committed during the so-called “Dirty War,” which saw the dictatorship hunt down political dissidents. Settling on nine officers, the case became the first major war-crimes trial since Nuremberg, and the first ever to be held in a civilian court. 

Incredibly reluctant to take on the case, considering the political implications if he wins (or loses), Strassera is nevertheless essentially forced into the role of prosecutor by his bosses, having to lead a trial that many within the government and upper class are against. Even the nine officers on trial say that they don’t recognize the court’s authority to bring charges against them. Strassera is only given an assistant, Luis Morena Ocampo (Peter Lanzani) — a young law professor with no trial experience and a family in the military — and a few months to collect evidence before the trial begins. 

Ocampo and Strassera quickly realize they can’t hire cops as investigators, and they can barely find any lawyers to agree to join the prosecution, so they instead turn to young office administrators. These young lawyers end up making up “Strassera’s Kids,” a cohort that does the bulk of investigative work, traveling into the archives and across Argentina to collect witness testimony.  What they discover is a trail of torture, disappearance, and murder across the country during the dictatorship’s reign. By the time the trial begins, the prosecution has collected a trove of documents explaining, in gruesome detail, how the military junta enacted a reign of terror on its citizens.  

The film is ostensibly a courtroom drama, complete with the tropes associated with the genre. We get the investigation, opening statements, cross-examination, and even a rousing closing statement. Yet, Mitre presents this story with such an unfussy, almost deadpan, approach that is rooted in verisimilitude. This enlivens what could’ve easily fallen into cliché. 

As played by Darín, Strassera decidedly does not want the job, seeing no way to actually win. Once the threats to his family increase, and the entire country begins to pay attention to the trial, he’s thrust into a major national spotlight. Ocampo plays the foil, a believer in the righteousness and authority of the trial; he nevertheless has to deal with a mother and family tied to the dictatorship, becoming increasingly paranoid in the process. It doesn’t help that Strassera and Ocampo are targeted by the Argentine military, and harassed every step of the way.   

The film’s docudrama approach often transitions from archival footage to historical re-enactments with ease and clarity. It’s the right choice, grounding a film that easily falls into the saccharine and maudlin with real-life details. When Strassera gives a rousing closing speech and the audience begins clapping, it almost feels unbelievable until the film stock turns grainy and we see the real audience doing exactly the same thing. 

Yet the film also spins a number of subplots that feel superfluous, especially one about Strassera’s daughter having a relationship with a married man or his son acting as a spy for him. These details may help shade his home life, but as the film moves past the two-hour mark, anything that isn’t the trial begins to seem unnecessary. Further, sometimes Mitra overplays a scene, forcing an oppressively stirring score onto that closing speech, or overly relying on on-screen text to provide context, not trusting the audience to be able to sort out the socio-political contexts for themselves. 

“Argentina, 1985” doesn’t break new ground within the genre, but it’s a fascinating re-enactment of a major historical moment in Argentinian history. Anchored by a beautifully curmudgeon performance by Darín, Mitra’s film is understated, compelling, and ultimately an important rumination on the incremental way that justice is served. [B+]