Argentina 1985 – Truth, Humor, and the Wicked (3.5*)

Argentina 1985 is a docudrama telling the story of the world’s first civilian trial of a military dictatorship. It is a courtroom drama lightened with humor and stories of families. A good film, but maybe a bit difficult to absorb. (3.5*)
Argentina 1985
Argentina 1985

Argentina 1985 – Snapshot

Argentina 1985 is a docudrama telling the story of the world’s first civilian trial of a military dictatorship.  It is a courtroom drama about very awful events, occasionally lightened with humor and family.  It seems to accurately recount the history, and paints the prosecutor and his team as humble, dedicated and energetic Davids trying to slay a military Goliath!  A good movie for those interested in recent history, but maybe not as impactful as it could have been. (3.5*)

Where to Watch:

Stream: Prime Video

Rent: ???

(Note: View the movie in its original Spanish language dialogue and not the default English. The English dubbing not only doesn’t come close to matching the mouth movements, but it isn’t even in a Spanish-inflected English and sounds terrible.  But if you insist on English dubbing, then don’t watch it with captions as the English captions don’t match the dubbing and leads to conflicting dialog.)

(Also Note: The true title of this film has a comma (,) after “Argentina”.  However all of my SEO tools fail to work with that in there, so I have left it out.)

Argentina 1985 – The Oscar Buzz 

Oscar Nominations:

International Feature Film (Argentina)

Argentina 1985 received a single nomination for International Feature Film, putting it in our “special interest” list.  (All Quiet on the Western Front from Germany won the Oscar).  This is Argentina’s eighth film nominated in this category.

Argentina 1985 – The Movie’s Family Tree

The Following Movies Share Talent with This One (and if you like these films, you might like this one):

The Summit (17): Director/Co-Writer (Mitre); Co-Writer (Llinas); Cinematographer (Julia);  Editor (Estrada); Art Director (Saiegh);Makeup Garacija); Acting (Darin)

The Student (11): Director/Co-Writer (Mitre); Co-Writer (Llinas); Art Director (Saiegh)

15 Ways to Kill Your Neighbor (22): Director/Co-Writer (Mitre); Co-Writer (Llinas); Cinematography (Julia); Editor (Estrada)

Like Hollywood, it appears the Argentine movie industry also develops teams that stick together, as a significant number of the players on the earlier movies listed above came together to do Argentina 1985.  I can’t say, however, that I am familiar with any of those films.  The only films in this film’s family tree that I am familiar with belong to the composer, Pedro Osuna, a young Spanish man who also composed the music for No Time to Die (21) and Klaus (19).  This appears to be his first collaboration with Director Santiago Mitre’s team.

Argentina 1985 – What Others Think

Argentina 1985 has not been rated by very many viewers, perhaps because of its limited availability – only on Prime Video.  Still, it holds its own with the rest of the International Feature nominees and ranks in the top half of all this year’s special interest films and top third of all 39 Oscar-nominated movies.

Critics place it pretty much in the middle of all five International Features, all fifteen special interest films, and all 39 Oscar nominees.  Natalia Winkelman (New York Times) noted that it “spins a notable piece of history into an impassioned courtroom drama flecked with quaint humor.”  Jessica Kiang (Sight&Sound) wrote that it achieves its internal tension “by rendering the story of the world’s first civilian-court conviction of a military junta as an epic David-and-Goliath struggle with a dapper, chain smoking, bespectacled fifty-something brandishing a sheaf of typewritten files who brings down a giant.”

It is interesting that this film was not reviewed by one of the major New York Times critics and yet a documentary (The Trial), released just a few months ago, on the very same subject, received a NYT Critics Pick!  This could have something to do with this film being a “docudrama”, something I talk about more below.

Argentina 1985 – Special Mention

A Bit of Argentine History – Argentina 1985 is about the true events that occurred between 1976 and 1985 in Argentina.  (If you already know this history, you can skip this section. But a basic understanding of the history helps to understand the movie.)

Isabella Peron was a somewhat liberal leader, but was viewed by many as ineffective.  Under her rule, Argentina endured rebellions some of which were labeled terrorism by more conservative forces.  Although all the facts are a bit unsure, it appears that, with CIA help, Argentina’s military leaders staged a coup in 1976, overthrew Peron, and installed a military dictatorship.  It is also been suggested that the new military dictatorship was advised by Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford’s Secretary of State, to get rid of their enemies quickly before human rights activists in the US raised objections.

It isn’t clear to me how, but between 1976 and 1983, there were a series of four military juntas who ruled Argentina.  And they did get rid of their enemies.  Using tactics of murder, kidnapping, and torture, some 30,000 Argentinians, mostly young adults, “disappeared”.  The whereabouts of many of them are unknown to this day.

For whatever reason, the fourth military junta, maybe because they felt they had accomplished their mission,  allowed a democratic election in late 1983.  Raul Alfonsin was elected President.  Three days after his inauguration, he ordered the prosecution against nine officers of the first three juntas.  The military court refused to do so – the military protects their own.  So Alfonsin appointed a National Criminal Court of Appeals.

Julio Strassera, a career civilian federal prosecutor, had the job of prosecuting nine military officers – the first time in world history that a civilian court prosecuted military dictators.  Although he uncovered evidence for more than 8000 cases, he presented the best 709.  Of those 280 were presented in court and 833 witnesses gave testimony.  His brief, typewritten concluding remarks ended with the famous phrase “Never Again!”.

Four of the nine defendants were acquitted, but the remaining five received sentences ranging from four and a half years to life imprisonment – the first time, anywhere, that military violence against its own citizens was held accountable.  Argentina 1985 tells the story of this prosecution and, from all appearances, adheres to the known facts with remarkable fidelity.

Docudramas – However, Argentina 1985 is not a documentary.  It falls in that slippery category of historical docudrama, a category that I find problematic.  The problem with docudramas is that you never know exactly which part is fact and which is fiction.  A documentary may have a perspective on the facts which slants their interpretation, but a docudrama doesn’t have any responsibility to be truthful to the facts at all because it states pretty much upfront that it involves fiction.  It is indeed interesting that just a few months ago a true documentary, The Trial, was released examining these exact same events.  It would be instructive to compare the two movies back-to-back to see exactly what the differences are.

Part of what has to be different is that we can’t know for sure what went on in prosecutor Strassera’s mind, nor in the interactions with the rest of his family.  There is much in Argentina 1985 that we enjoy about the Strassera family, his co-prosecutor Ocampo, and their band of young, energetic, field agents.  We know from the pictures that they look a lot like those who were really there, but we can’t possibly know if the interactions, the feelings, and the details of events were what actually happened.  And yet, we are asked, in the docudrama, to believe they happened like that.

Argentina 1985 isn’t the first docudrama and won’t be the last.  Anytime you see the words “Based on True Events” you have to put on your critical thinking hat in order to tease out truth from fiction.  One that I think of, that I also wasn’t happy with, was I, Tonya , the story of ice skater Tonya Harding.  A big part of why I didn’t like that film was because Margot Robbie looks too good to be Ms. Harding – part of Harding’s issue was she wasn’t as pretty as Nancy Kerrigan and so, in this docudrama, the casting just didn’t work!.  But the issues of verisimilitude perhaps weren’t as important in I, Tonya because, really, they didn’t involve moral issues on a national or global scale like those in this film.

So why does it matter? Because when a story is “based on a true event”, the emotions generated are not just about your experience with the film.  The movie is also asking you to feel something about the real history.  And the problem with that is that you can’t do it credibly if you don’t know what’s truth and what’s fiction!  It matters more in some cases than others, but you are still being pushed towards a point of view without knowing the difference – That’s the problem.

Argentina 1985 – Michael’s Moments

Argentina 1985 has some great moments.  I especially liked how the director Santiago Mitre and his cinematographer and editor created several montage effects to condense a large amount of activity over an extended period of time into just a few seconds of visuals.  We first see the effect when the nine defendants are stating their names for the court record at the 33 minute mark.  Shortly after that is another great sequence with Strassera’s partners interviewing the “kids” who are going to do all the field work to collect evidence.  In this one, they jumble up the interviews to present similar reactions to different questions and, in just a second or two, convey a bit of their personality.  Around 1:10 there is another sequence merging witness testimony with pictures of the newspaper headlines and television screen coverage, all to convey how the public was following every minute of the trial.  Finally, with the ending credits, we see a montage of pictures from the real events of almost 40 years ago and we get to see how much the actors look like the real players.

Another terrific attribute of Argentina 1985 is the use of humor.  If the movie had relentlessly bombarded us with the facts of these atrocities, it probably would have been just a bit too much to deal with.  Instead Mitre and co-writer Mariano Llinas thoughtfully chose to periodically lighten the mood with unexpected humor.  As they are interviewing one of the kids for a job it suddenly turns out that he is the son of the interviewer (around 40 minute mark) – that was unexpected and leads to more interesting interaction.  The testimony of the witnesses is incredibly intense, but is punctuated with a couple of funny bits of humor around 1:15.  Then, 20 minutes later, Strassera, totally out of the blue, makes an obscene gesture to the military generals.  Humor, when done in moderation, is a great contrast to the serious nature of the subject of the trial.  It shows a respect for the audience and, admittedly, this kind of humor is something you are not likely to see in a straight documentary.

Finally, I’d like to note that Mitre gets extra bonus points for emphasizing family.  After all, the most severe atrocities performed under the dictatorship weren’t just the killing and “disappearing” of people, but was also the destruction of families.  Mitre provides a counterpoint to that damage by emphasizing the family relationships of Strassera and his co-prosecutor, Ocampo.  I especially like the role that Javier, Strassera’s young son plays as both a child of and an advisor to his father.   The father takes his son’s suggestions and incorporates them into his closing speech. Ocampo has an important series of interactions with his Mother which suggest the impact the trial is having on the Argentinian people.

In the end, though, Argentina 1985 doesn’t have quite the impact that you will get from something like The Quiet Girl.  The latter movie has a simplicity to it that amplifies the message.  The former is a gritty, complex picture of a reality we would rather wish had not happened.  Perhaps we have just a bit too much of that in our lives right now and, rightfully, want something a little less real.  For all of Mitre’s attempts to lighten the load, perhaps Argentina 1985 is just a bit too heavy.  (3.5*)

Argentina 1985
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