The military regime that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983 has become a byword for mass murder, the horrors of the “exceptional state,” and genocide. Some 30,000 people were extra-judicially executed, some thrown out of helicopters and airplanes into the South Atlantic; rape was an instrument of torture; and detainees who gave birth in captivity had their babies snatched from them before they were executed, with the children then given to military families for adoption.

Now from an unspeakably awful period of Argentine history comes an unspeakably good film, Argentina 1985, which has won many international awards since its release and was nominated for an Oscar as Best International Feature film in 2023.

Before the trial of members of the military junta in 1985, their conviction by a civilian court was seen as an impossible task. The movie shows how, against all odds, a team led by Federal Prosecutor Julio Strassera (played by Ricardo Darin), a lawyer with an unheroic personality but a staunch commitment to the constitutional legal process, assisted by young lawyers who were rookies but were fired with energy and were willing to think outside the box, was able to secure life imprisonment for the military chieftain, General Jorge Videla, who led the dirty war, and long sentences for some of his co-conspirators.

While the film focuses on the legal battle, where the prosecution demolished the defense’s claim that orders for killings and torture did not come from above and that brutal methods were needed to prevent the country from descending into civil war, it does not neglect the battle of narratives that was brought out of the courtroom by the unmuzzled media. Through the media’s reportage of dramatic, searing testimonies of human rights victims and relatives of victims, the prosecution was able to reach out to and sway the nation, including the crucial middle class that had previously largely gone along with the military’s appeal to national security to justify its heinous crimes. The middle class’s changing view of the deeds of the junta is personified in the film by the mother of the assistant prosecutor, who is transformed from a defender of the military to a critic, despite her coming from a military family.

Argentina is one of the few countries where a dictatorship was held accountable for its crimes by a civilian judicial process. In neighboring Chile, General Augusto Pinochet was never brought to trial for his crimes, and bringing human rights abusers to justice has been impeded by a decree adopted by the Pinochet regime before it left power in 1990 that declared amnesty for crimes committed by the military during the period of the dictatorship. In the Philippines, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., was whisked away to Hawaii by the United States, preventing a judicial settlement of accounts with him.

Perhaps the closest approximation to the Argentine example was the conviction and sentencing to death of the military autocrat Chun Doo Hwan for masterminding the 1980 Gwangju Massacre and other crimes in the seven years he served as South Korea’s strongman. The death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but Chun was pardoned by President Kim Young-sam after serving only a few months of his sentence. In the case of both Chile and Korea, fear of a conservative backlash prevented a full reckoning for the crimes of military dictators. It is likely that in the case of Argentina, the daily exposure of the citizenry to the wrenching testimonies of people subjected to torture or those of their relatives and friends was the element that led to the melting away of middle-class support for the military.

Argentina 1985 ends with a message to the audience that Argenina has not had a military coup since 1983.

One can only hope this will be the case forever. One is made uneasy, however, by the fact that Argentina now has a radical right-winger as president, Javier Milei, who has a vice president, Victoria Villaruel, who has become an unabashed apologist for the military perpetrators of the dirty war. Will this duo, as many Argentines fear, make moves to reverse the judgment of the law, the people, and history on one of the darkest episodes of their country’s history?