Argentina’s Junta Trial Was About More Than a Few Good Men

Relying on Hollywood clichés, “Argentina, 1985” offers a pat, sentimentalized view of history.

By , a Bolivian American freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
Two men in suit sit side-by-side. One is pointing past the camera.
Two men in suit sit side-by-side. One is pointing past the camera.
Ricardo Darín and Peter Lanzani star in "Argentina, 1985." Amazon Studios

At a time when many people feel helpless against the larger forces of war, fascism, and injustice, it feels good to see a civilian court take down a monster. Argentina, 1985, Argentina’s entry for best international film at the 2023 Academy Awards, satisfies that desire in its portrayal of the Trial of the Juntas, when the military commanders in power during the country’s dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 were prosecuted and sentenced for their role in the torture, murder, and disappearance of thousands of people in their so-called Dirty War against leftists.

The Trial of the Juntas is ideal fodder for a prestige film about justice, democracy, and good winning over evil. With an all-star cast and an award-winning indie director, the film is poised to break into the international mainstream. Despite the grim subject matter, it’s a crowd-pleaser—a portrayal of a now-overlooked moment in history when a dictatorship’s crimes were condemned by a court of law.

The film is also a strikingly uncomplicated snapshot of a period in history that can be difficult to pin down. In Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s, the kaleidoscopic influences of political violence, U.S. interference, the Catholic Church, European fascism, and widespread fears of communism all played a role in the transfer of power from Peronists to the dictatorship to Raúl Alfonsín’s centrist presidency. In examining that period, it can be hard, as is often the case in times of political turmoil, to tease out which figures were “good”—or even where on the political spectrum they stood. (The term Peronist, for instance, could be applied at the time to both “left-wing trade unionists” and “right-wing authoritarian nationalists.”)

At a time when many people feel helpless against the larger forces of war, fascism, and injustice, it feels good to see a civilian court take down a monster. Argentina, 1985, Argentina’s entry for best international film at the 2023 Academy Awards, satisfies that desire in its portrayal of the Trial of the Juntas, when the military commanders in power during the country’s dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 were prosecuted and sentenced for their role in the torture, murder, and disappearance of thousands of people in their so-called Dirty War against leftists.

The Trial of the Juntas is ideal fodder for a prestige film about justice, democracy, and good winning over evil. With an all-star cast and an award-winning indie director, the film is poised to break into the international mainstream. Despite the grim subject matter, it’s a crowd-pleaser—a portrayal of a now-overlooked moment in history when a dictatorship’s crimes were condemned by a court of law.

The film is also a strikingly uncomplicated snapshot of a period in history that can be difficult to pin down. In Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s, the kaleidoscopic influences of political violence, U.S. interference, the Catholic Church, European fascism, and widespread fears of communism all played a role in the transfer of power from Peronists to the dictatorship to Raúl Alfonsín’s centrist presidency. In examining that period, it can be hard, as is often the case in times of political turmoil, to tease out which figures were “good”—or even where on the political spectrum they stood. (The term Peronist, for instance, could be applied at the time to both “left-wing trade unionists” and “right-wing authoritarian nationalists.”)

But in the sanitized world of Argentina, 1985, history is much simpler. Using familiar beats from American courtroom dramas (To Kill a Mockingbird and Young Mr. Lincoln come to mind), director Santiago Mitre elides the period’s complexities to present a fairly cut-and-dried story. A prosecutor—one of the “good” ones, among a sea of fascist peers—brings together a group of brave souls willing to risk their reputations to prosecute a brutal dictatorship and bring to light the horrors it committed.

Mitre depicts the film’s protagonists—lead prosecutor Julio César Strassera and his deputy, Luis Moreno Ocampo—as beacons of morality and humble servants of democracy. The director suggested as much himself in recent comments to the Hollywood Reporter. “What I really wanted was to do a film about justice,” he said. “It was super important to me to portray these people, who were heroes of justice, as … normal people trying to do their jobs. Because when you talk about transforming the world, about achieving justice, it can seem impossible, that only superheroes can manage it.”

Throughout the film, Strassera is thus portrayed as an Atticus Finch-like hero, while Moreno Ocampo’s emotional arc is limited to his moral steadfastness in the face of ridicule from his mother and pro-military family. Mitre takes particular care to demonstrate Strassera’s affection for his family and friends. The film, for instance, features several scenes showing the tight bond between Strassera and his young, freckle-faced son, whom he even turns to in one scene to seek advice on his closing argument. In another scene, Strassera confesses to his wife how difficult preparing for the trial is, and as the music swells, she replies that she’s proud of him.

While insisting on Strassera’s likability, the film avoids delving into his past and his own connection to the dictatorship. Almost no mention is made of the fact that Strassera rose to the powerful position of federal prosecutor under the dictatorship—or that in this role, he allegedly rejected many habeas corpus requests by political prisoners and worked to dismiss the charges in the 1976 San Patricio Church massacre, when police officers stormed a church and killed five people.

At one point, the film briefly flicks at this potential complication in the hero narrative but cuts away without exploring it further. In the scene, two of Strassera’s research assistants arrive at the modest Buenos Aires office of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an organization founded by the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared, to request access to their records. One mother at the office exclaims that she “hope[s] the prosecutor behaves a little better than during the dictatorship.” The moment is jolting. But rather than lingering on the accusation, which is never discussed again, the mother offers the assistants the documents they’ve requested.

The film then cuts to a conference room, where one of Strassera’s young research assistants combs through files of victim testimonies. With a quavering voice, the assistant reads an excerpt of testimony aloud: “Mama, tell him Papa ran away please. It was the last time I heard his voice.” The camera pushes in on the assistant as he sniffles and wipes his nose with his sleeve. It’s a moment that exemplifies the film’s avoidance of nuance in favor of trite sentimentalism—all the more so because it is preceded by the faintest of gestures toward a truer representation of history.

It is not just Strassera’s past that is elided. The film’s narrow focus precludes it from exploring the broader political forces surrounding the dictatorship and the trial. Despite the film’s length—it runs 2.5 hours—where is the mention of Peronism, the quasi-fascist ideology that the dictatorship sought to overthrow? What about Washington’s support for the junta? For a film that celebrates the reestablishment of liberal democracy, one would hope that there would be some mention of the outsized role that the Western Hemisphere’s most influential democracy had on the dictatorship. But the movie doesn’t touch on any of these issues. Nor does it provide a nuanced account of the political realities faced by Argentines then and now. In the end, Mitre is interested in making the audience feel good and reinforcing faith in institutions like the law and democracy.

Argentina, 1985 has been universally lauded by critics, with one reviewer commending the film’s clearheaded “utilitarian” focus on the junta’s crimes and the representation of the scrappy squad that brought these criminals to justice. The film’s desire to shed light on a rare moment when justice was served could be seen as noble and inspiring, but its good intentions are corrupted by its glorification of its protagonists. Ultimately, it relies on Hollywood clichés, and in presenting its protagonists as uncomplicated heroes, it embraces a pat, sentimentalized view of history.

In his closing argument, Strassera utters the famous line “Nunca mas” (“Never again”)—now a popular political slogan in Argentina. The statement has a finality to it, as if with the reinstitution of liberal democracy, the film’s characters have arrived at the end of history. Yet while Argentina, 1985 leaves the audience with this feeling, we know now—as the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared continue to seek justice and accountability today and as the country’s growing far right threatens to erase the memory of the dictatorship’s ills—that this history is far from over.

Lucia Arce Ahrensdorf is a Bolivian American freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Twitter: @lucia_o_a

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.