Streaming Review

Argentina, 1985 review – slick but slightly superficial courtroom drama

Santiago Mitre's film about the military junta trials following Argentina's Dirty War is gripping and well-made, but lacks detail

At its core, Argentina, 1985 is the sort of slick, fact-based legal drama that Hollywood once built entire Oscar campaigns around. Indeed, this retelling of the court trials of the Argentinian military junta for crimes against humanity and genocide certainly feels pitched at the Best Foreign Language award, and that’s not a bad thing. It has a high-profile star (or at least one recognisable to Western viewers) in Ricardo Darín as Julio Strassera, the experienced prosecutor who led the trial in a then still-fragile democracy against significant military pressure and threats. It has a moving, final act monologue about the importance of human rights, and it moves along with zip and verve, the core structure of the narrative capably marshalled by director Santiago Mitre.

At two hours and twenty minutes, the film never feels long: it moves at a real breakneck pace, and the courtroom scenes are superbly acted and shot, giving the high-flying cast a chance to really embody their characters, whilst finding ways to shoot the courtroom in ways so as to keep the tension at a high. However, this slickness does come at the cost of depth – so much happens here that the film is rarely able to linger on specific details for too long. The trial, for example, is predicated on proving that the military junta knew about the gravity of the torture, murder, and oppression happening under their orders during Argentina’s Dirty War (which saw possibly up to 30,000 people killed) – but the film never takes a moment to understand how that institutional oppression was built in the first place, envisioning it only in the abstract, or after the fact via victim testimonies.

It’s understandable that the filmmakers wanted to prioritise victim testimony rather than highlighting the perpetrators, but the trouble with this approach is that the limits of human empathy only go so far, even in film, abstracting evil rather than giving it the human face it carried in history. That the military junta predicated its success on the support of the middle classes, that nationalistic chest-beating gave pretext to physical beating, that this apparatus of fear requires a large cohort of complicit and compliant allies, that Strassera himself worked as a federal prosecutor during the Dirty War: these aspects are remarked upon, but barely explored.

Instead, Mitre finds intrigue in other elements. When the film does slow down, it allows itself to be drenched in noir-ish fluorescent lighting, Darín cast in half-shadow, as if sincerely contemplating the gravity of his actions. Throughout, the film does looks fantastic, with a constant light and shade, alongside evocative period detail, that keeps the material interesting when it could have easily devolved into actors talking at each other. Still, Argentina, 1985 is exceptionally well-made, gripping for all of its runtime, and such compelling technique makes up for an otherwise superficial rendering of this crucial moment in Latin American history. Perhaps, in this case, the hard detail may be best left to the history books.

Argentina, 1985 is released on Prime Video on October 21.

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