The story told by Argentina, 1985 is well-known to Argentinians, who all know how it ends. However, it is so well-presented that it is riveting all the same. Argentinians have every right to feel proud about this episode in their history: what became known as The Trial of the Juntas. For those who are not familiar with recent Argentinian history, a brief explanation is in order.
In March 1976, a military junta seized power in Argentina and began a brutal crackdown on left-wing opponents and others. The generals, led by Jorge Rafael Videla, who claimed the presidency, argued that their actions were necessary to protect national security by defeating communist guerrilla groups. However, these military actions went far beyond fighting the guerillas. As Videla said, “A terrorist is not just someone with a gun or a bomb, but also someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western, Christian civilization.” So, the military attacked non-violent political opponents, journalists, Jews and intellectuals in general. Eventually an estimated 30,000 Argentine citizens were tortured, murdered or “disappeared.” Democracy was restored in 1983, and Raúl Alfonsín was elected president. Alfonsín immediately ordered the prosecution of nine junta leaders. This was an unprecedented example of a democratically-elected government charging deposed military dictators. In Argentina, 1985, written by Mariano Llinás and Santiago Mitre and directed by Mitre, the story of the prosecution and trial is told from the point-of-view of Julio César Strassera, the prosecutor who is assigned the case. Strassera is played, in a typically brilliant performance, by Ricardo Darín.
Not only is Strassera faced with a dangerous task, but he also has to deal with an unexpected obstacle: none of the other senior prosecutors want to join him. They are either compromised by their association with the juntas or they are afraid the generals will return to power, and they will receive the same punishments as the generals’ previous victims. Strassera is assigned a young deputy, 32-year-old Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), who has never prosecuted a case and whose family is close to at least one of the military officers. For the rest of his team, Strassera is forced to accept a group of freshly-minted young lawyers. However, they turn out to be perfect for the job, full of energy and bent on righting wrongs. They travel all over Argentina, interviewing victims and survivors, eventually compiling evidence for 709 cases, of which Strassera and his team present 280 in court. In real life, the trial was shown live on television.
Argentina, 1985 is a successful political thriller. The good guys and bad guys are clear-cut, and there is even a case of an important character, Moreno Ocampo’s mother, changing her mind from pro-military to pro-prosecution. The highlight of the film is the heartbreaking testimony of several of the victims and survivors. At the end of Argentina, 1985, we are shown photographs of the real people upon whom the film’s characters are based, including the witnesses who testified.
I cannot help but add a few observations about the Trial of the Juntas, particularly as they relate to my own country, the United States. First of all, while Videla, the generals and their underlings were committing rape, torture and murder, there were three U.S. presidents. Gerald Ford, deferring to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, approved military aid to the junta. When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, he continued to supply the generals with weapons. But when their atrocities became more clear, Carter cut off aid and encouraged other national governments to do the same. When Ronald Reagan took over the White House in 1981, human rights concerns went out the window. Both Reagan and Kissinger were firm supporters of the murderous generals.
The climax of Argentina, 1985 is not the reading of the verdicts, but the final indictment speech given by Strassera. The generals and their lawyers claimed that their brutal tactics were necessary because they were protecting Argentina from violent left-wing terrorists. In the film, Strassera does not deny or excuse the tactics of the terrorists. Rather he says that the generals used the same tactics and even worse, and on a much greater scale. Instead, they should have used legal, judicial methods to prosecute the guerillas rather than using their existence as an excuse to crush normal, non-violent dissent.
Compare this to the actions, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, of U.S. President George W. Bush and his cronies, most notably Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet and—yes, there he is again—Henry Kissinger.
The War Crimes Act of 1996, promoted by Republicans and passed by both houses of Congress without a dissenting vote, made it a federal crime to commit a “grave breach” of the Geneva Conventions, meaning the deliberate “killing, torture or inhuman treatment” of detainees. Although it was initiated to prosecute foreigners who mistreat American prisoners, Congress, in an admirable display of bipartisan support for human rights, applied the law as well to American treatment of foreign prisoners of war, reasoning that Americans should hold themselves to the same standards they hold others.
But that didn’t stop the CIA from opening torture centers around the world. Younger Americans might not know this really happened, but it did. George W. Bush and CIA Director George Tenet established secret prisons in 30 countries. In many of the prisons, American citizens committed acts of extreme torture.
In 2009, Bush was replaced as U.S. president by Barack Obama. Human rights activists urged Obama to prosecute U.S. war criminals. But Barack Obama was no Raúl Alfonsín. He rejected the proposal to investigate war crimes committed by Americans, stating his “belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” Eventually Obama granted immunity to government officials who approved or engaged in torture, and his attorney general, Eric Holder, dropped all charges of human rights abuses committed by Americans. Tenet was never charged with violating the War Crimes Act of 1996. Gina Haspel, who oversaw torture, including waterboarding, in Thailand, was promoted to CIA director in 2018.
At the end of Argentina, 1985, after the verdicts are announced, Strassera and the other lawyers set to work to build cases against those below the generals who excused their actions by claiming they were just following orders. In 2005, the Argentine government re-opened the prosecution of war criminals. By 2011, 259 citizens of Argentina had been convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide, crimes they had committed more than twenty years earlier.
There was a precedent for a government’s delayed prosecution of war criminals. It happened in Germany. In 1945-1946, an International Military Tribune, popularly known as the Nuremberg Trials, tried 22 Nazis and others for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Over the next three years, they convicted another 97 Nazi officials, industrialists and physicians. Later, the Germans themselves took over. For example, in 1963, eighteen years after the end of World War II, 22 officials of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps were put on trial, and seventeen of them were convicted.
Compare this to U.S. citizens who raped, tortured or murdered detainees. Like the generals in Argentina, all government leaders in the United States claimed they were just protecting national security. The U.S. citizens who committed acts of torture, claimed, like the Argentinians who were prosecuted, that they were just following orders.
It wasn’t just CIA agents who committed war crimes. There were members of the U.S. military who did the same.
Although there have been scattered examples of American soldiers convicted of murder or abuse, they are few and far between. For example, in November 2005, U.S. Marines shot to death 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including four children younger than six, in what came to be known as the Haditha Massacre. Only one Marine, Frank Wuterich, stood trial, and he avoided prison time.
President Bush, ignoring U.S. military tradition, swept up hundreds of non-terrorists and oversaw war crimes, such as torture, rape and murder. (See the Academy Award-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side.)
In 2008, Major General Antonio Taguba, who had earlier issued the official report on torture and rape at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, said, “There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.” The answer has been “no.”
There is one moment in Argentina, 1985 related to Strassera’s speech that hit home for me personally. Strassera incorporates in his indictment summation a suggestion made by his son, Javier (Santiago Armas Estevarena). When I was fifteen years old, my father, Irving Wallace, sat down at the kitchen table one night and told my mother and me he had a great idea for a story: because of the obscure Presidential Succession Act, a Negro (this was 1963) becomes president of the United States. He asked us what white racists would do. I thought a moment and replied, “They’d impeach him.” At that time there had only been one presidential impeachment, and that had taken place 95 years earlier. My father took my suggestion and made it the climax of his novel, The Man.
In Argentina, 1985, when Strassera uses his son’s suggestion, Javier, sitting in the audience in the courtroom, grins with pride. I recognized the feeling, and I smiled too.