The American myth-making machine’s love for pumping out heroes, like so many cape-wearing sausages, finds its antithesis in “Argentina, 1985,” an entertaining biopic about recent Argentine history that takes the baton from Shakespeare’s idea that “some men have greatness thrust upon them.” This is very much the case for Julio Strassera (Ricardo Darín), a family man who is aghast at his appointment as lead prosecutor in what became known as “The Trial of the Juntas.”
Director Santiago Mitre raises the curtain at a moment in his nation’s history when there is but a glimmer of a possibility of making a break from the military dictatorship that operated from 1976-1983, torturing, kidnapping, and terrorizing anyone it deemed a threat. Mitre presents self-determination as hinging on what kind of trial the nine generals who ruled the military government will experience. With their power still casting a long shadow, they lobby for a military trial where they will be judged by the army they used to command. The fairer option is a federal trial and — who would be its lead prosecutor? — you guessed it, Mr. Julio Strassera.
Mitre and co-writer Mario Llinas (who also showed the military dictatorship in “Azor”) set out their tonal store early by establishing Julio as a brilliant curmudgeon. One might expect an austere atmosphere to signal the serious political stakes at play, however, what we get is that classic comic gambit of someone trying to evade their boss. Julio absolutely, unequivocally does not want the job that will arise from this meeting. Darín became known to Western audiences with “The Secret in their Eyes” (2009) and has since proved his chops with shape-shifting roles that maintain a complex charisma. Once again, he does the heavy lifting here, knitting together the procedural, historic, and domestic elements of this drama with deft wit and nuance.
His family life has an oddball quality. Julio and wife Silvia have a pre-teen son, Javier, and a teen daughter, Veronica. With the exception of Julio himself, the family unit is endearingly immune to the paranoia that tends to accompany making powerful enemies. “Was that another death threat?” yawns Silvia, after Julio slams the phone down on an anonymous caller who has threatened the lives of both his children. “They’ve been calling all afternoon,” she says, in the middle of a crossword.
This nonchalance is ramped up in Javier, who has fashioned himself as a kid detective, tailing Veronica to bring intel about her dating habits back to Julio. Their home is a yellow-lit slice of a larger tenement block when filmed from the outside with an interior flavored by cozy domesticity: all musty books, polished mahogany, and clunky ’80s technology. The set has the feel of being decorated precisely from childhood memories, affecting a nostalgic warmth that tends to be absent from procedural thrillers.
On that analogue television set, the Strasseras watch news of “disappeared people” whose families still have no answers. Once The Trial of the Juntas is underway, it too will be beamed into thousands of homes. Mitre shows us the technology disseminating updates about the country’s destiny, so that, during courtroom scenes, perspective sometimes switches to the grainy footage captured on a large video camera with lights blinking red for off and green for on. This may be an offbeat and textured snapshot of history, but it still holds at its core cold anger on behalf of the dictatorship’s victims and interest in how the people will receive updates about their future.
The question of who is responsible for creating the future is one that Julio wrangles with as he tries to assemble a team not tainted by the previous regime. A scene where he and a colleague try to choose an Assistant Prosecutor is played for deadpan comedy, where name after name is met by the rebuttal “fascist,” “very fascist,” or “dead…and he was super-fascist.” In the end, it is young people who emerge.
“Strassera’s Kids” is a headline of one magazine spread printed as media interest begins to build and threats intensify. “Argentina, 1985” always has one eye on the fluid moment, the other on how it will set into headlines and textbooks. Fluidity presents in the loose bickering of the dialogue in all major relationships, not least Strassera and his assistant prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), who clash over both generational issues and political backgrounds.
The real antagonists are the old men in uniform, who file in and out of the courtroom, showing not a shred of remorse. Ocampo has a brush with jeopardy that drives home the extent to which a country is still colored by its recent past. A regime’s muscles don’t wither just because democracy says so, is a sober truth that feels salient in the post-Trump-as President America. The matter of what the regime did — and who it did it to — is left to be told in the victims’ own words. Court testimonies are sparely presented, and allowed to run long. Mitre and Llinas draw from existing court transcripts, and give a second day in court to Strassera’s haunting closing statement, with its kicker line of “Never again.”
Court scenes are served straight, unlike the lawyer’s lives, which are spiced with an “Ally Mcbeal”-esque irreverence. The most bizarre choice is the triumphalist outro music that wouldn’t be out of place in “Top Gun.” This cheesiness is at odds with the quiet way that the outcome of the trial is revealed. Julio’s reaction and the fears he expresses even in his brightest moment mark this film as fully debunking simplistic hero myths. Who makes history? Real people with personalities, that’s who.
“Argentina, 1985” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it in theaters on Friday, September 30 and streaming on Prime Video on Friday, October 21.