Despairing portraits of injustice—writ both small and large—don’t come much bleaker than Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy, Netflix’s six-part docuseries about a terror attack in Argentina, the theories and investigations that followed, and the unbelievably shady death of the man accusing the country’s president of colluding with foreign powers to let the perpetrators go free. Even on a streaming platform known for its pessimistic true-crime works concerning the unknowability of truth, Justin Webster’s documentary is a gut-punch of a non-fiction exposé, recounting a tangled tale with few clear answers and considerably less hope.
The story of scandals piled on top of crimes piled on top of more scandals, all of it leading to endless questions and unending misery, Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy (available now) is, first and foremost, about the July 18, 1994, bombing of the Jewish cultural center AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) in Buenos Aires that left 85 dead and more than 200 injured. AMIA was the worst terror attack in Latin American history, and it fell to Jewish-Argentinian native Alberto Nisman to prosecute the case. In that trial, Nisman and his colleagues seemed to successfully argue that the heinous atrocity was carried out via a truck bomb that was procured by known criminal Carlos Telleldín, and that the suicide driver was a member of Hezbollah. Their contention that Telleldín had been in league with a cabal of crooked cops, however, fell apart thanks to mid-trial revelations, resulting in few credible culprits.
Nonetheless, the ambitious and morally righteous Nisman was asked to continue investigating AMIA. With the aid of Antonio “Jamie” Stiuso—the No. 2 intelligence agent in the country at the time—he came to believe that those responsible for the tragedy were the powers-that-be in Iran, who had employed their Hezbollah proxies to do the deed in a manner similar to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center (among others). In the ensuing decade, Nisman mounted a highly public legal campaign against Iran as well as Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner, who—along with her chancellor Héctor Timerman, and others in her cabinet—he claimed had conspired with Iran to let the suspected terrorists behind the attack go free. So convinced was Nisman that Kirchner had tried to rescind Interpol’s “Red Notice” arrest warrants for the wrongdoers, all in order to solidify business dealings with Iran, that he filed a formal complaint in 2015 charging the president with treason.
And then, on Jan. 18, 2015, a day before he was set to appear before Congress to present evidence in support of that charge, Nisman was found dead in his apartment, the victim of a single gunshot wound to the head.
Suspicious timing, no? Anyone with a semi-functioning frontal lobe immediately suspected foul play. And the fact that Nisman had voiced plenty of concern about his personal safety, but shown no signs of suicidal depression (he was a separated father of two who was devoted to his daughters, and living a single life amidst a bevy of models), only amplified such hunches. The problem was, the forensic evidence was, and remains, inconclusive; for all the testimony presented by experts, replete with CGI recreations and gunpowder residue and blood-spatter analysis, there’s simply no way to definitively know whether Nisman did the deed himself, or if a third-party shooter was responsible. Even a late eye-opener about ketamine in Nisman’s system (possibly related to his earlier Wikipedia searches about psychedelia?) can’t fully convince one that he was offed by a nefarious agent.
Then again, nothing in Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy is 100 percent persuasive. The links between Iran and the AMIA bombing come across as frustratingly insubstantial. The same goes for Argentinian intelligence agencies’ own potential role in the crime. There are tons of wiretap conversations featuring a shadowy inside-man known as Allan Bogado, who was supplying Iran with intel on Nisman and Kirchner. Yet despite director Webster getting Bogado on camera to talk about his conduct, it’s never clear whether he was a traitor, a double-agent, or a fraud. There are also calls between Stiuso and fellow intelligence cohorts in the hours leading up to the discovery of Nisman’s body that, according to prosecutor Viviana Fein, point to pre-release knowledge about his death—but their purpose is never ascertained. That Nisman was flush with an eye-opening amount of cash (far more than his income would have provided) is merely another in a string of questionable details sans decent explanation.
“That Nisman was flush with an eye-opening amount of cash (far more than his income would have provided) is merely another in a string of questionable details sans decent explanation.”
In other words, good luck parsing almost any element of Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy, which is drowning in dates and developments from the past quarter-century of Argentinian politics. Webster employs timelines, dramatic recreations, crime-scene footage, new and old interviews, and obnoxious TV broadcasts (which function as their own damning critique of a media world gone mad) to try to streamline his knotty material while simultaneously shaping it in a dramatic thriller-mystery mold. The effort, alas, is only partially successful. No matter the six-hour-plus runtime, there’s sometimes too much information to lucidly process, especially given that the director eschews a straightforward chronology, jumping backwards and forwards in time to shine a light on various investigative avenues. A working knowledge of recent Argentinian history will help viewers navigate these turbulent waters. Still, a simpler, less adventurous narrative structure would have made this twisty-turn affair quite a bit easier to digest.
Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy eventually suggests that Nisman may have been the victim of a conspiracy himself, orchestrated by Stiuso, a 30-year intelligence operative whose cagey interviews are marked by Cheshire Cat grins and shrugged-shoulder expressions that imply he knows infinitely more than he’s letting on. Stiuso’s ability to cling to his powerful position through multiple regimes (some dictatorial, some democratic) is a testament to his cunning ability to manipulate and exploit. Ultimately, this formidable and mysterious spy seems to be the true mastermind of this sprawling saga—and a figure who proves that outsiders (such as Nisman) wade into treacherous espionage waters at their own great peril.